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Infatuation with Itaewon: Survivors Continue to Suffer One Year Later

A year after the horrifying crowd crush that claimed the lives of nearly 160 young people, Lee Ju-hyeon returned to the alley where she almost lost her life.

She visits it regularly, determined to preserve the memories of that dreadful night until justice is served.

It was Halloween weekend, and over 100,000 people had gathered in the maze-like streets of Itaewon, a popular nightlife district in Seoul, for a night of revelry.

They poured into a narrow, steep passageway from three sides until it became so crowded that people couldn't move. Some couldn't even breathe. Many perished.

Despite numerous well-documented failures of the authorities, a year later, no one had been held accountable, leaving survivors and mourners struggling to heal.

Ju-hyeon can pinpoint the exact spot where she stumbled and fell to the ground as people surged over her. The pressure was so intense that it ruptured her leg muscles, paralyzing them, and she lost consciousness. She awoke, still trapped, to the sounds of chaos.

"There were cries all around. Those in the crowd were shouting, 'Please help me, I don't want to die,' and those in the clubs who could see what was happening were crying, 'Please don't die; please don't die,'" she said.

Gradually, the cries and pleas died down.

Now, much of the once bustling alley of Itaewon is boarded up. Some of its bars never reopened. And thousands of people live in fear of confrontations or the loss of loved ones who didn't survive.

Park Jin-seon lives with both.

He was in Seoul with his mother and younger sister, intrigued by the Halloween parties in Itaewon, and they decided to attend. By the time they arrived, the alley was heaving, and Jin-seon urged his sister to run while he stayed to watch over their mother.

He held her as she struggled to breathe, creating a tiny pocket of space between them for her to catch her breath. When medics arrived, he pulled her out through a gap in the crowd.

He ran through the streets and hospitals, his muscles aching, searching for his sister until the police called him from the morgue. "That's when the world collapsed on me," he said. "I couldn't leave the house at first. I was very scared at night. The slightest sound paralyzed me."

Both he and his mother quit their jobs.

A year later, Jin-seon is back at work, and his fear and sadness have turned into anger.

Many survivors and the families of the deceased say they still haven't received adequate answers about what went wrong that night.

The initial investigation concluded that local authorities failed to properly plan the event and take crowd control measures. It also revealed that the police ignored concerned visitors' calls about the gathering before the crush turned deadly. Emergency services also failed to timely deliver medical help.

But there were few explanations for why such mistakes were made, especially since authorities expected a large crowd and had documented potential risks.

Twenty-three police officers and government officials were charged with criminal offenses, including involuntary manslaughter and negligence. Many remain in their positions as legal proceedings and investigations continue.

Higher-ranking politicians and officials, including the Minister of Interior, the Mayor of Seoul, and the National Police Agency, were exonerated.

For Park Jin-seon, this is evidence that the disaster was not properly investigated. He and other families are calling for a new independent investigation, pending approval by parliament. "They never had a single meeting to explain what happened and say, 'We're very, very sorry,'" he said. According to him, even that would be enough to ease his pain.

After the tragedy, the government established a trauma center to provide support to survivors. Jin-seon receives a weekly message offering assistance but doesn't respond. "It's government-run, and I don't trust it very much, so it's uncomfortable for me to go there," he said.

For one survivor, 16-year-old Lee Jae-hyun, the trauma proved unbearable. He was trapped in the midst of the crowd with his best friend and girlfriend, helplessly watching her lose consciousness before he stopped breathing too. Lying in a hospital bed, he learned that she and his friend had died, making them the two youngest victims.

Forty-three days after the tragedy, Jae-hyun took his own life, becoming victim number 159.

"After the tragedy, he became a completely different boy," said his mother, Song Hae-jin. "He used to be a cheerful, talkative child. Then he hardly spoke. He sat alone in his room and couldn't sleep."

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this story, you can visit BBC Action Line.

There is no official monument for the victims of the crush. Their families take turns guarding an altar adorned with photos of the deceased to prevent the authorities from removing it, as they have threatened to do.

Relations between the families and the authorities have been problematic, according to Hae-jin. She said they faced ostracism after the crush because various authorities tried to evade responsibility. Immediately afterward, some people even pointed fingers at the survivors and the deceased, assuming they were at fault for going out that night. Hae-jin recalled how deeply this upset her son.

"In the end, it was the government and local authorities that failed in their duty to protect lives. There was absolutely no accountability for this at all. To heal, we need to find out why this happened and who is responsible," she said, adding that she would feel guilty until her death for not protecting her son.

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