Seoul (CNN) “He’s smiling, look at his smile, his face.” Oh Il-seok fondly looks at a photograph of her daughter taken in the last hours of her life. As he removes his glasses to wipe his eyes, his wife whispers, “Ji-min is my friend, she is my best friend.”
Oh Ji-min, 25, was one of 158 people who were crushed to death by a crowd during Halloween festivities in Seoul’s Itaewon night district on October 29.
His parents have the unthinkable task of reconstructing his last moments from selfies and photos taken with his cell phone.
At 9:35 pm, the photos show Ji-min smiling inside a bar. At 9:59 pm, he texts a friend to tell him that he is going home. Then, at 22:07, the last photo of Ji-min appears, smiling with her friend Kim of hers.
The women head to the subway, making their way through the crowd. Within minutes, panic gripped the crowd, dragging them into a narrow alleyway where dozens of people would die.
“As if we had been sucked in”
“We didn’t intend to go down that alley … it was like we were sucked in,” recalls Kim, who asked to be identified only by her last name and spoke to CNN in the days leading up to a memorial held Friday for the victims.
“I got separated from Ji-min when two other men came between us. When that happened, I lost my loafers, but my feet were off the ground and only the crowd moved me.”
Official sources estimate that the deadly crush began at 10:15 p.m., just eight minutes after Ji-min’s last selfie. The 158 deaths occurred in the alley about 4 meters wide into which the two young women were dragged. In addition to the many young South Koreans and 26 foreigners who died, 196 people were injured, including Kim.
“Someone in front of me fell and I fell too,” Kim said. “The next thing I realized I was lying on top of a foreigner and people were piling up on top of me and each other. He was in the second layer of that pile”.
Hope came when she saw the face of a paramedic in front of her. She was trying to pull out a woman, but every time her body moved, the pile of people screamed.
“We were already under pressure, but trying to get her out added more pain, so she had to stop,” Kim said.
A police officer who came to the scene said that when he arrived there was already a pile of bodies in the alley.
“We couldn’t get people out of the bottom, there was too much pressure, I guess they were already dead,” said the agent, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from his superiors.
“People from the second and third layers were fainting, screaming for help, but we couldn’t get them out.”
His account matches that of a lifeguard who told CNN they saw up to “10 rows of faces (but) we couldn’t even see their legs.”
Kim’s memories of her own rescue are hazy. “They took me out and I was lying on the ground for a while. I think I lost consciousness for a while and woke up again. It was around 12:30 in the morning when they took me by ambulance.”
“I was hospitalized overnight and released. I couldn’t walk until the next morning. I pinched my legs but felt nothing. I left the hospital but I didn’t feel my legs for about 10 days.”
“That image comes to my head and I can’t sleep”
Ji-min’s mother, Kim Eun-mi, had no idea that her daughter was in Itaewon. She started to worry because Ji-min always came home early after a night out.
“That day, since it was Saturday, I met Ji-min to go shopping. Later we ate together and she went to see her friend. So when my son told me that he had gone to Itaewon, I told him: ‘no, she went to see her friend’.
Throughout the night, the family made frantic calls to Ji-min’s cell phone, to hospitals and the police, and visited her nearby apartment to see if she had returned home yet.
At 1 pm the next day, the family received a call asking them to go to the hospital morgue to identify Ji-min’s body.
“It is really devastating to identify your own daughter,” said Kim Eun-mi. Between sobs, her husband added: “When I go to bed… that image comes to me and I can’t sleep.”
The family goes to see Ji-min every day at the cemetery, close to home. Every sleepless night, Ji-min’s parents visit an online chat room that brings together relatives of those who lost their loved ones in the tragedy.
Kim Eun-mi says that it is helpful to talk to others in the same situation because only they can understand the pain of others.
Grief is clouded with unanswered questions and anger at the home where Ji-min grew up.
“The most difficult and frustrating thing is that nobody takes responsibility. The tragedy happened, but no one is responsible,” said Kim Eun-mi.
A consultative group made up of the families of the more than 97 victims of the accident requested a formal apology from President Yoon Suk Yeol and the dismissal of the Minister of Security for failing to prevent the tragedy.
Although Yoon expressed “condolences” to the families, he stopped short of apologizing, instead saying that “those specifically responsible” must be held accountable.
Security Minister Lee Sang-min said on October 30 that the tragedy could not have been prevented by sending the police or fire brigade earlier.
The National Police Agency is conducting a special investigation, but the parliamentary inquiry has not yet started due to political infighting.
So far, two police officers have been fired and detained on charges of destroying an internal report on the risks of gathering a large crowd in Itaewon during the Halloween festivities.
Former Yongsan District Police Chief Lee Im-jae is under investigation on suspicion of professional negligence and falsifying an official document, while former emergency control chief Song Byung-joo is under investigation on suspicion of professional negligence.
The police officer who spoke to CNN expressed concern about the direction the investigation appears to be taking. He fears he is focusing too much on mistakes made after the tragedy, rather than a lack of safety planning ahead of time.
“The problem is that the real perpetrators don’t take responsibility. The direction of the investigation does not look up, only down,” said the police officer.
“There may have been mistakes trying to save one more life, but if we’re blamed, who would want to do this job?”
Ji-min’s parents said they have not heard from the government since their daughter’s funeral was held.
Politics has no place in the investigation, they said. They want facts about how and where their daughter died, and answers to the more difficult question of why it happened in the first place.
As they go through a box of birthday cards and photos with friends recovered from their daughter’s apartment, they wrestle with a life-changing tragedy that should never have happened.
“She was so loving and charming,” Kim Eun-mi says of her daughter. “She was such a beautiful daughter to me, but she is no longer with me.”
Her voice breaks and the sobs invade her again.