December 4, 2022

CNN —

When he arrived in the South Korean city of Seoul at the end of August, American exchange student Steven Blesi quickly made a large circle of friends from all over the world.

The 20-year-old from Atlanta studied at the city’s Hangyang University as part of a US study abroad program. He had planned to meet with several people from the class on Saturday in Seoul’s Itaewon district to celebrate Halloween with thousands of other young revelers.

But when he failed to show up, his friends and family began a frantic search to track him down before eventually learning he had died in a crowd in a crowded alley that killed 156 mostly young people.

Blesi’s best friend on the program was Ian Chang, 21, from Florida, who was also his dorm neighbor.

“We’re quite adventurous, doing spontaneous things,” Chang said in an exclusive interview with CNN this week. “And just explore the city.”

Blesi loved to “dance, drink, have fun,” Chang said, and “every time he met someone, it had a huge impact on them.”

On Saturday night, Chang and Blesi were supposed to meet in the narrow streets of Itaewon, a popular area with nightclubs, bars and fast food outlets. The pair had been dating earlier that day, then Chang had gone home to change.

“In the beginning, we just wanted to go to Itaewon to see what it’s like there, to see what’s so special about Halloween,” Chang said. “Because we’ve heard from people that Itaewon is going to be big on Halloween.”

But when he got to Itaewon around 9:40 p.m., Chang began to see the impending danger. He sent Blesi a Snapchat message at 10:17 p.m., urging him to avoid Itaewon and meet in Hongdae neighborhood instead.

“It’s too crowded. And there’s no place to go,” Chang wrote.

As word spread of the horror that unfolded in Itaewon Alley over the next few hours, Blesi’s other friends also tried to call and text him.

“You can come to me… it’s safe here. Where are you Steven?” wrote 24-year-old Belgian exchange student Wassim Essebane around 1am on Sunday via KakaoTalk, a South Korean messaging app similar to WhatsApp.

Another friend, Stefanie Reuss, 22, also tried to track down Blesi from her home in Austria, more than 8,000 kilometers away. Reuss helped raise the alarm by posting messages on Instagram and Twitter to locate him.

Steven Blesi: American student killed in Seoul Halloween crush was ‘curious about the world’

One of the people who contacted Reuss was 19-year-old Olivia Kim from Houston, Texas, who had been dating Blesi for a few weeks. Kim had planned to go to Itaewon on Saturday night but changed his plans at the last minute. She was supposed to meet Blesi on Sunday afternoon.

“Steven and I talked almost every day for about a month after we went on our first date in early October,” Kim told CNN. “I immediately admired his emotional generosity, wit, adventurous spirit and upbeat personality.”

Kim had lost contact with Blesi on Saturday and when he still didn’t reply on Sunday morning, she began to worry that he was one of the victims.

Back home in Atlanta, Blesi’s father, Steve, was also growing increasingly desperate.

“Maybe half an hour before this tragedy, I texted him on WhatsApp… ‘I know you’re on your way. Take care. I love you.’ And I never got an answer,” Blesi’s father said.

Over the next few hours, the repeated missed calls and messages went unanswered.

Around 6 a.m. Sunday morning, Chang said Blesi’s mother emailed him asking for help finding her son. Chang said they tried calling around Seoul hospitals and asking their Korean-speaking friends for help.

But on Sunday noon they all learned the news they feared most after being told by Blesi’s father, who had been briefed by the US embassy.

Another American student from the program, 20-year-old Anne Gieske of Kentucky, also died in the scrum Saturday night. She had been with Blesi earlier in the evening, although it is not clear if they were together when they died.

Earlier in the evening, the young partygoers thought the crowded streets of Seoul’s Itaewon district were part of the fun of the Halloween experience.

“We thought it was funny at first,” said Anne-Lou Chevalier, a 22-year-old French exchange student who survived the crush. “We heard Halloween was amazing in Itaewon.”

But when an estimated 100,000 people finally crowded into the narrow streets and alleys, panic set in.

“We (started) being very, very united and down and then we heard some people screaming and crying,” Chevalier said.

“We tried to help people because there were a lot of people who couldn’t breathe,” said her friend, 18-year-old Alice Sannier, also from France.

Police stand guard near the alley where a deadly crush broke out during Halloween celebrations in Seoul's Itaewon district.

The friends were separated in the chaos of the crowd, and Chevalier passed out twice in the scrum, adding that it felt “like dying”.

“I remember not being able to breathe, so I started choking,” Chevalier said. “Somehow I got evacuated with my friend, so I’m very, very lucky.”

The two friends said their small stature made them more vulnerable.

“Because we’re small, there were a lot of foreigners who were (much) bigger and surrounded us, so at some point you can get out of breath and then you start freaking out,” Chevalier said.

A total of 101 women and 55 men died in the disaster.

Sannier and several other eyewitnesses who spoke to CNN said they saw several people pushing into the crowd, which is being investigated as a possible trigger for the domino effect that took place.

“Everyone was pushing, that’s why so many people died,” Sannier said, adding that they didn’t see any police officers in the crowded alley.

Records show that 11 calls were made to police to warn of the situation in Itaewon ahead of Saturday night’s crowding, and the head of South Korea’s National Police Agency said the police response to those calls was “inadequate”. An investigation is underway.

Friends and families of the victims are just beginning to come to terms with what happened to their loved ones, many of whom were just beginning their lives.

“It’s unimaginable,” Reuss told CNN.

Reuss met Blesi when she was in Seoul for three weeks in September. They had become fast friends, partying together, doing karaoke and eating Korean barbecue, and making plans to travel together in Europe.

“He was curious about the world,” said Reuss. “He had so many dreams. I am very like him. It makes me sad.”

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

“He had an incredibly bright future, which is now over,” he added.

One of Blesi and Chang’s most recent adventures was a hike to the mountainous island of Jeju off the southwest coast of South Korea a few weeks ago.

Steven Blesi, Ian Chang and Anne Gieske on a hike to Jeju.

“We (were) just all amazed at how far we were from home,” Chang said. “To experience all these adventures together. And to explore something that we probably wouldn’t have thought of a year ago.”

Blesi not only loved hiking and the food and nightlife of South Korea, but also its cultural traditions.

“He had never been to Asia, so he was keen to explore,” Chang said. “He was really excited to go to temples, for example.”

His friend Essebane told CNN that Blesi was “an absolutely amazing guy”.

“He was kind, outgoing, made you feel comfortable, had such a warm personality and he was funny,” Essebane said. “I will never forget him.”

A memorial to Steven Blesi in front of the Business Administration Building at Hangyang University, where he studied on an exchange program.

In just a few months of knowing each other, Chang said he considered Blesi his “brother.”

“Steven was the nicest person ever,” Chang said.

“I’m just glad to have had him in my life,” he added. “I wish I could have made more memories with him.”