When he arrived within the South Korean metropolis of Seoul in late August, American change scholar Steven Blesi shortly developed a large circle of pals from all over the world.
The 20-year-old from Atlanta was finding out on the metropolis’s Hangyang College, as a part of a US examine overseas program. He had deliberate to satisfy up with a number of folks from the course on Saturday within the Itaewon district of Seoul, to rejoice Halloween with hundreds of different younger revelers.
However when he didn’t present up, his family and friends started a frantic search to trace him down, earlier than ultimately studying that he had died within the crowd crush in an overcrowded alleyway which killed 156 principally younger folks.
Blesi’s finest pal on this system was Ian Chang, 21, from Florida, who was additionally his neighbor of their college dorms.
“We just about like adventures, doing spontaneous stuff,” Chang advised CNN in an unique interview this week. “And simply exploring town.”
Blesi cherished “dancing, ingesting, having enjoyable,” Chang mentioned, and “each time he met somebody new, he had a huge impact on them.”
On Saturday evening, Chang and Blesi had been supposed to satisfy within the slim streets of Itaewon, a well-liked district lined with nightclubs, bars and quick meals shops. The pair had been collectively earlier that day, then Chang had gone house to get modified.
“At the start we simply needed to go to Itaewon to see the way it was, see what’s so particular about Halloween there,” Chang mentioned. “As a result of we heard from folks (that) Itaewon goes to be huge on Halloween.”
However when he arrived in Itaewon round 9:40 p.m., Chang started to comprehend the hazard that was unfolding. He despatched Blesi a Snapchat message at 10:17 p.m. urging him to keep away from Itaewon, and to satisfy up within the neighborhood of Hongdae as a substitute.
“It’s too packed. And there’s no place to go,” Chang’s message mentioned.
As information unfold of the horror that unfolded within the Itaewon alleyway over the following few hours, Blesi’s different pals additionally tried calling and messaging him.
“You may come to my place … it’s protected right here. The place are you Steven?” messaged 24-year-old Belgian change scholar, Wassim Essebane, at round 1 a.m. on Sunday by way of KakaoTalk, a South Korean messaging app just like WhatsApp.
One other pal, Stefanie Reuss, 22, was additionally making an attempt to trace Blesi down from her house greater than 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) away in Austria. Reuss helped to lift the alarm, by posting messages on Instagram and Twitter looking for him.
One of many folks Reuss contacted was 19-year-old Olivia Kim from Houston, Texas, who had been courting Blesi for a number of weeks. Kim had been planning to go to Itaewon on Saturday evening, however modified plans on the final minute. She was attributable to go on a date with Blesi on Sunday afternoon.
“Steven and I’ve been speaking to one another practically on a regular basis for a few month after occurring our first date in early October,” Kim advised CNN. “I instantly adored his emotional generosity, wit, adventurous spirit, and optimistic character.”
Kim had misplaced contact with Blesi on Saturday, and when he nonetheless didn’t reply on Sunday morning, she started to fret that he was one of many victims.
Again house in Atlanta, Blesi’s father, Steve, was additionally rising more and more determined.
“Possibly a half hour earlier than this tragedy happened, I texted him in WhatsApp … ‘I do know you’re out and about. Keep protected. I like you.’ And I by no means received a response again,” Blesi’s father mentioned.
Over the following few hours, the repeated missed calls and messages went unanswered.
At round 6 a.m. on Sunday morning, Chang mentioned Blesi’s mom had emailed him, in search of assist in monitoring down her son. Chang mentioned they tried to name across the hospitals in Seoul, enlisting their Korean-speaking pals to assist.
However round noon on Sunday, all of them discovered the information they feared probably the most, after being advised by Blesi’s father, who had been knowledgeable by the US embassy.
One other American scholar from this system, 20-year-old Anne Gieske from Kentucky, additionally died within the crowd crush on Saturday evening. She had been with Blesi earlier within the night, though it’s not clear in the event that they had been collectively after they died.
Earlier within the night, the younger partygoers had thought the overpacked streets within the Itaewon district of Seoul had been a part of the enjoyable of the Halloween expertise.
“At the start we thought it was humorous,” mentioned Anne-Lou Chevalier, a 22-year-old French change scholar who survived the gang crush. “We heard Halloween in Itaewon was wonderful.”
However when an estimated 100,000 folks ultimately crammed into the slim lanes and alleyways, panic started to set in.
“We (began) to be very, very caught collectively and crushed, after which we heard some folks screaming and crying,” Chevalier mentioned.
“We had been making an attempt to assist folks, as a result of there have been lots of people (who) couldn’t breathe,” mentioned her pal 18-year-old Alice Sannier, additionally from France.
The chums received separated within the chaos of the gang, and Chevalier fainted twice within the crush, including that it felt “like dying.”
“I keep in mind that I had no air, so I began suffocating,” Chevalier mentioned. “One way or the other I received evacuated with my pal, so I’m very, very fortunate.”
The 2 pals mentioned their slight frames made them extra susceptible.
“As a result of we’re small in dimension, there (had been) lots of foreigners that had been (a lot) taller and so they had been surrounding us, so at one level you can’t have some air, and you then begin to freak out,” Chevalier mentioned.
In complete, 101 ladies and 55 males had been killed within the catastrophe.
Sannier and a number of other different eyewitnesses who spoke to CNN mentioned that they noticed a number of folks pushing into the gang, which is being investigated as a attainable set off for the domino impact that happened.
“Everybody was pushing, that’s why so many individuals had been dying,” Sannier mentioned, including that they didn’t see any cops after they had been within the packed alleyway.
Information present eleven calls had been made to police to warn concerning the state of affairs in Itaewon earlier than the crush occurred on Saturday night, and the pinnacle of South Korea’s Nationwide Police Company has mentioned that the police response to these calls was “insufficient.” An investigation is underway.
Mates and households of the victims are solely simply starting to course of what occurred to their family members, lots of whom had been simply beginning out in life.
“It’s unimaginable,” Reuss advised CNN.
Reuss had met Blesi when she spent three weeks touring in Seoul in September. They’d shortly grow to be pals, partying collectively and doing karaoke and consuming Korean barbecue, and so they had been planning to journey collectively in Europe.
“He was curious concerning the world,” Reuss mentioned. “He had so many desires. I’m similar to him. It makes me unhappy.”
Blesi’s father mentioned his son had “all the time been an adventurer.” He was an Eagle Scout, appreciated basketball and needed to study a number of languages, he mentioned.
“He had an extremely shiny future that’s now gone,” he added.
Considered one of Blesi and Chang’s most up-to-date adventures was a climbing journey a number of weeks in the past, to the mountainous island of Jeju off the southwest coast of South Korea.
“We (had been) simply all impressed by how far we’ve been from house,” Chang mentioned. “Happening all these adventures collectively. And exploring one thing that we in all probability haven’t considered a 12 months in the past.”
In addition to climbing and having fun with the meals and nightlife of South Korea, Blesi additionally cherished its cultural traditions.
“He’d by no means been to Asia so he actually needed to discover,” Chang mentioned. “He was actually excited to enter, for instance, temples.”
His pal Essebane advised CNN that Blesi was “an absolute nice man.”
“He was sort, open, made you’re feeling snug, had such a heat character, and he was humorous,” Essebane mentioned. “I’ll always remember about him.”
In just a few months of figuring out one another, Chang mentioned he had come to think about Blesi as his “brother.”
“Steven was the kindest individual there ever was,” Chang mentioned.
“I’m simply glad to have had him in my life,” he added. “I want I may have made extra recollections with him.”