Chocolates, flowers and soju as Seoul mourns its dead

Seoul: Buzzing with fun and laughter until the other day, Itaewon is quiet and eerie, with the deaths of 156 people in a Halloween stampede on October 29 casting a dark shadow over the glittering nightlife hub of the South Korean capital.

Some shops are open and many are closed, there is hardly any traffic and the air is heavy with the scent of incense sticks at the makeshift memorial near the driveway where a growing crowd of revelers has spiraled out of control. The ensuing stampede killed 156 people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, and injured more than 170.

“People seem to be avoiding the area,” said a taxi driver who carried virtually no passengers through the entertainment district.

White chrysanthemums – symbols of grief in South Korea – bottles of soju, a local liquor, chocolates and cigarettes are some of the farewell gifts mourners left at the memorial near the Hamilton Hotel .

“My lovely friend, Yu-na… Sorry,” one letter read, mourning the death of a loved one who got caught up in the crush.

Memories of the day are still fresh and many do not want to discuss them.

“I’m sorry,” said a weary shopkeeper, waiting for customers and refusing to talk about the tragedy that unfolded that night.

A fleet of around eight to 10 police buses are parked in the road leading to the narrow alley, now marked as a ‘no go zone’ with orange tape and police personnel guarding the site in pairs.

“We don’t know until when we’ll be here or when things will get back to normal,” Kim, a police officer, told PTI.

On that fateful day, around 100,000 people flocked to this popular spot, known for its trendy nightclubs, restaurants and bars, for South Korea’s biggest outdoor Halloween festivities. It was the first relaxation of social distancing protocol and mask mandates since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For some like Kurt Jang, who was partying with his friends at a club a few yards down the alley, the trauma lingers.

“We saw people lying on the road. We started looking on social media to find out what was going on. We were shocked. We hurried home. It was traumatic,” Jang, who is in her late 20s, told PTI.

That his apartment is opposite Soon Chun Hyang Hospitalmedical facility closest to the crash site, added to her distress.

“I could see people constantly being taken out of ambulances. The sirens sounded all night. My family called me in the morning worried sick. They also assumed I was one of them,” he said.

“I don’t have enough words to express what happened that night. The wounds are too fresh.

The sounds you hear nearly 10 days later underscore the tragedy – the stern voices of police personnel asking people to keep moving so others can pay their last respects, the hushed voices of local journalists as they set up equipment for a live broadcast and the Buddhist chanting of monks seated near the memorial to console the dead.

According to Korean media, the government is in the line of fire after revelations that several passers-by around the crash site had tried to alert the police to a possible influx of crowds hours before the incident, but the forces did little to defuse the situation.

Banners calling on the government, led by South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol, to “take responsibility” for the tragedy can be seen in various parts of the city.

An investigation is underway to determine the cause of the crash.

Korean theater fans who dream of going to South Korea one day know this area from the popular 2019 show “Itaewon Class” featuring popular actors Park Seo-jun and Kim Da-mi.

Today, however, this Itaewon is a world apart.

Life, as Jang said, will return to Itaewon but not anytime soon.

“We need two to three months, maybe more. There are a lot of people who are still grieving,” Jang said.

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