The UCI Center for Critical Korean Studies and the UCI Center for Medical Humanities discussed the recent crowd stampede in Itaewon, South Korea through a Zoom panel held on Nov. 3.
Itaewon, a busy neighborhood in South Korea known for its nightlife and lively streets, has been a popular place to celebrate Halloween for young Korean adults and tourists alike. This year marked the first Halloween festivity since the pandemic, garnering many participants to celebrate without any COVID-19 restrictions.
On Oct. 29, thousands of partygoers were packed shoulder-to-shoulder in a small, sloped alleyway that measured to be no more than 16 feet wide. As the volume of people increased, the alleyway soon became crowded and dangerous to the point that victims were unable to move or breathe.
The crowd crush has left at least 156 people dead and more than 100 injured, according to The Korea Times.
Journalist Kelly Kasulis Cho has been reporting the tragedy in Itaewon since the night it occurred. In the panel, she spoke about her experience being in the crowd as the panic ensued.
“I definitely remember getting goosebumps each time the fire department came and flipped over [the] whiteboard showing death toll. I did not anticipate it to reach 146 or so. That came in waves, and each time it was quite shocking,” Cho said.
Cho has been covering this incident for The Washington Post to investigate the details of what happened that night.
“I spoke with a doctor who tried to save people a little past 11:00 p.m. and had said by the time she arrived to the scene, most of the people were unsavable. They also didn’t have resuscitation equipment, and CPR would have been insufficient at that point,” Cho said. “It really was chaos, confusion and tragedy.”
Another panelist, Hyungji Park, who is a professor of English Literature at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, expressed her thoughts on the tragedy as an educator of young students.
“All of the victims in that short alleyway were in their teens, 20s and 30s. They were young people with dreams, futures and aspirations. They were in their first jobs. They were newly engaged and were traveling to Korea,” Park said. “Although fortunately, no degree students at Yonsei were among the victims, the faces of those who died on that evening were the faces of my students, college students and exchange students.”
To pay respect to the victims during Korea’s national mourning period, Park visited the memorial sites set up throughout the city.
“It was really surreal. Here was a neighborhood and an alley that I’ve been to numerous times, and there it was cordoned off by police tape,” Park said. “Everybody is standing there next to me revisiting all the scenes of the crush, suffocation, agony, desperation and noise as we gaze upon that short stretch of pavement.”
Participants of the panel were then joined by the speakers in a moment of silence to remember the victims of the tragic incident.
AClinical Associate Professor at Boston University Grace S. Kim talked about the psychological effects of exposure to such a traumatic event.
“A lot of emotions come in waves. Things like shock, anger, rage, anxiety, sadness, grief, shame, guilt or frustration. Some of you may be also noticing other physical reactions such as being restless, fatigue, nightmares, heart palpitations and sweating,” Kim said. “For those of us who are far away from Korea and have connections to Korea, the feelings of loneliness or aloneness can also increase during this time.”
Kim explained ways to navigate through these emotions following the incident.
“One thing to note is for us to be gentle on ourselves during this time because there’s so much happening. It’s easy to go to a space of what-ifs, so it’s important to figure out how we could be gentle on ourselves and to other people as well,” Kim said.
The discussion then opened up to the participants to ask questions or provide commentary.
One participant, who would like to remain anonymous, spoke about her experience being in the crowd surge of that night.
“I couldn’t see anything that was happening. We didn’t know anything that was going on. We just kept moving towards that alleyway. There were not enough police at that time to tell us what was going on,” she said.
With Itaewon partygoers dressed up in costumes for the Halloween celebration, the participant said it was difficult to detect local police and emergency services.
“People were dressed up as police so we didn’t even know who was real police at the time either,” she said.
The participant also spoke about the media’s response to the tragedy, which she said has spun the blame onto the victims and survivors of the Itaewon disaster.
“I wish more people had empathy. We couldn’t control anything that was going on. When we escaped the opposite way, everyone was still partying. They had no idea what was going on, and people are putting the blame on them as well,” she said. “No one understands how many people were there, and we couldn’t move for minutes at a time. No one is really putting that into perspective, and it’s really upsetting to me and my friends who were there [as well] as those who have experienced this tragedy.”
The director of the UCI Center for Critical Korean Studies Joseph Jeon ended the panel by providing mental health resources to those affected by the tragedy. Members of the UCI community can check the Counseling Center for more resources.
Elaine Cha is a Campus News Intern for the fall 2022 quarter. She can be reached at email@example.com.