December 2, 2022

Seoul, South Korea CNN —

South Korean authorities said Monday they had no guidelines to deal with the huge crowds that gathered for Seoul’s Halloween celebrations as families across the country and around the world mourn the 156 victims of Saturday night’s crowds.

The crush took place in the narrow, neon-lit lanes of the popular nightlife district of Itaewon, where witnesses said they couldn’t move or breathe as thousands of revelers stood shoulder to shoulder on a street no more than 4 meters wide.

Desperate families spent much of Sunday gathering at information centers where authorities were compiling details of the dead and wounded, and contacted morgues and hospitals in a desperate attempt to locate missing relatives.

Now that all the victims have been identified, the panic has turned to national mourning as the country grapples with one of the worst disasters on record – while parents abroad make arrangements for their deceased children in a foreign country.

Official memorial altars were erected in central Seoul on Monday, with photos showing crowds who came to pay their respects. Many were in tears, holding white flowers; others knelt and bowed low before the altar.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, his wife Kim Keon-hee and senior officials including the prime minister and mayor of Seoul joined the mourners.

Many shops and businesses were closed to observe a week-long national mourning period. Parts of central Seoul were almost deserted – a highly unusual sight in the normally busy capital, home to around 10 million people.

People also paid their respects at a makeshift memorial in Itaewon in front of a subway station near the alley where the rush occurred. The station entrance is decorated with rows of flowers and offerings such as handwritten notes, bottles of Korean liquor soju, and paper cups filled with beverages.

Among the mourners was a civic group representing the bereaved of the Sewol ferry disaster that killed 304 people – mostly teenagers on a school trip – when the ship sank in 2014.

“As someone who has suffered the same pain, my heart is broken and I am speechless,” one of the group’s members told reporters at the memorial, saying the families were sad “to see such a great disaster repeated.”

Just down the street, the entrance to the alley had been cordoned off and security personnel stood guard while forensic teams in white hazmat suits combed the area, which was still littered with trash and debris.

Amid the grief, questions have surfaced about the government’s handling of the incident and an apparent lack of crowd control prior to the tragedy.

One survivor, 22-year-old French exchange student Anne-Lou Chevalier, told CNN she passed out in the crowd after being “punched” by fellow revelers. “At one point I ran out of air and we were so pressed against other people that I couldn’t breathe at all. So I just passed out,” Chevalier said.

Several eyewitnesses and survivors said they saw few or no police officers in the area before the situation worsened.

Earlier Sunday, the Home and Security Minister said that only “ordinary” security personnel had been dispatched to Itaewon as the crowd there did not appear to be unusually large – while a “considerable number” of police officers had been dispatched to another part of Seoul in response to expected protests.

Seoul Halloween Crush: South Korean authorities say they have no guidelines for Halloween people

But — in the face of a backlash from Korean politicians and on social media — authorities appeared to change course on Monday, saying they had deployed about 137 staffers to Itaewon that night, compared with about 30 to 70 staffers in previous years before the pandemic .

“For the Halloween festival this time, it was expected that many people would gather in Itaewon, and I understand that it was prepared by deploying more police forces than other years,” said Oh Seung-jin, director of the Department of Violent Crimes at the State Police Department.

However, he admitted: “Currently, there is no separate preparation manual for such a situation where there is no organizer and a gathering of people is expected.” In addition, the police were not used for crowd control, but for crime prevention and to deter “various illegal activities “.

Kim Seong-ho, director of the Department of Disaster and Security Management at the Ministry of Interior and Security, echoed those comments, saying they had no “guidelines or manual” for such an “unprecedented situation.”

The victims were mostly young people who went to Itaewon on Saturday night eager for South Korea’s first Halloween celebrations in years without Covid restrictions.

The death toll rose to 156 Tuesday after the death of a seriously injured woman in her 20s, Seoul police said. A total of 101 women and 55 men were killed.

Twelve of the victims were teenagers and more than 100 were in their 20s, according to authorities.

Among them were 26 foreign nationals from countries such as the United States, China, Iran, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, Australia, Norway, France, Russia, Austria, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Another 149 people were injured, 33 of them seriously, including 15 foreigners.

Six students attending schools in Seoul — one middle school student and five high school students — were among the dead, as were three teachers, the Korea Ministry of Education said.

Three South Korean military personnel were also among those killed, a Korean Defense Ministry official said.

Shin Ae-jin was a 24-year-old graduate who was killed in the crowd on Saturday, her father told CNN.

She had started working at McKinsey & Company in September. Ahead of this new chapter in life, the family took a trip to Europe in July, he said.

“I have traveled a lot with her since she was young. We have taken many family trips together. We’re a very happy family,” her father, Shin Jung-seob, a retired venture capitalist, told CNN.

“It’s sad that I won’t see her again, but I feel like I had a fulfilling life with her… She lived happily,” he said while receiving mourners at Samsung Seoul Hospital’s funeral home in the capital.

“My daughter was always bright, had many dreams and was not afraid of any challenge. She lived as a high performer.”

The father said he plans to bury his daughter next to a tree, a practice called sumokjang, in which the ashes of the deceased are placed in a degradable container and often buried in a cemetery plot. The family can then visit the tree and commemorate their loved one.

When asked why he chose this type of burial, Shin said, “We wanted to remember her. A tree has life, so it keeps growing.”

Steven Blesi, 20, a college student from Marietta, Georgia.

Two American college students were identified – Steven Blesi from Georgia and Anne Gieske from Kentucky – both junior year.

Blesi’s father, Steve Blesi, said his son had “always been an adventurer”. He was an Eagle Scout, liked basketball and wanted to learn several languages, he said.

“Maybe I texted him on WhatsApp half an hour before this tragic event… ‘I know you’re on your way. Take care. I love you.’ And I never got an answer,” Steve said. “He had an incredibly bright future, which is now over.”

Dan Gieske, Anne’s father, said in a statement Sunday night the family was “completely devastated and heartbroken” and called Anne “a bright light loved by all.”

Anne studied nursing this semester and studied abroad in Seoul, the University of Kentucky president said.

Anne Gieske, a student at the University of Kentucky, died in the crowds in Seoul.

The father of Mei Tomikawa, a 26-year-old Japanese exchange student who died in the scrum, told Japanese public broadcaster NHK he was “prepared for the worst” when he was unable to reach her.

She learned Korean before going to school in Seoul, he said before traveling to South Korea from Japan on Monday.

“I tried calling her to warn her to be careful, but she never answered the phone,” he said, according to NHK. “She was a great daughter … I want to see my daughter as soon as possible.”

Grace Rached, an Australian killed in crowds in Seoul, South Korea.

The family of one Australian victim, Grace Rached, also released a statement on Monday, describing her as “a talented film producer who was passionate about making a difference”.

“We miss our gorgeous angel Grace, who lit up a room with her infectious smile. Grace always made others feel important and her kindness made an impression on everyone she had ever met. Grace has always cared about others and was loved by all,” the family wrote.

Authorities are now working with foreign embassies and families abroad, offering assistance with funeral arrangements. More names and faces of those who died are likely to emerge as the week progresses, as the nation searches for answers on how such a catastrophe – in an area notoriously crowded on Halloween and where festival weeks are planned – might have unfolded.