One year after Seoul Halloween disaster, families still seeking answers

A visitor looks at the portraits of victims of the Itaewon Halloween tragedy at a memorial maintained by families and supporters in downtown Seoul on Thursday. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
1 of 10 | A visitor looks at the portraits of victims of the Itaewon Halloween tragedy at a memorial maintained by families and supporters in downtown Seoul on Thursday. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, Oct. 26 (UPI) -- As the one-year anniversary of the Halloween crowd crush tragedy in Seoul arrives this weekend, anguished survivors and bereaved families say they are still looking for answers, an apology and accountability for a disaster that left 159 dead.

At a press conference in Seoul on Thursday, family members called on the South Korean government to address their questions and take responsibility for what they said was a failure to protect the victims, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s.


"It's been a year since the tragedy, but the truth hasn't been revealed, and no one has been held accountable by admitting, 'It's my mistake,' or 'It's my fault,'" Yu Hyoung-woo, a father of one of the victims, said.

Instead, many officials and ruling party lawmakers have tried to shift the blame to the victims, portraying them as "disorderly people, possibly involved with drugs," Yu said.


Oct. 29 turned deadly last year when over 100,000 revelers descended on the nightlife district of Itaewon to celebrate Halloween. However, police dispatched just 137 officers to the neighborhood and authorities badly botched the emergency response when dangerous overcrowding emerged.

Family members say they have still never received a formal briefing from the government and an opposition-led bill calling for an independent investigation has stalled in parliament despite heavy public criticism that emerged in the wake of the tragedy.

A police investigation that wrapped up in January concluded that the crush was avoidable, calling it a "man-made disaster." Some 23 local officials and police officers were referred for prosecution on negligence, but verdicts have yet to be delivered on the slow-moving cases. No senior government officials, meanwhile, have faced charges or resigned.

Interior Minister Lee Sang-min, the top security official in the country, had an impeachment by opposition lawmakers overturned by a Seoul court. On Wednesday, Lee made a public apology and said he feels "an infinite sense of responsibility" for the tragedy.

Many survivors, however, say that they are the ones who have been made to feel responsible.

Lee Ju-hyun went to Itaewon that night to enjoy the festivities with friends and was caught in the crush. She fell down and was trapped under the crowd, eventually passing out before being brought to the hospital.


"Immediately after the disaster, the government was busy trying to reduce its scope of the disaster and hide it," Lee said Thursday. "The government is still blaming individuals for everything that happened."

She said she and other survivors were "traumatized again" after the disaster with allegations of drug use and authorities demanding financial transaction and telephone records to verify their movements.

"The victims and survivors of the tragedy have always had to prove that they were victims and this situation is still the same," she said.

Among those who died were 26 foreign nationals from 14 countries, and their family members have also complained that they have been given few answers and minimal assistance from the South Korean government.

"We as foreign victim families live in isolation," Nari Kim, an Austrian whose younger brother died in the Itaewon tragedy, said.

"Nothing is reported to us nor communicated to us," Kim said. "The only reason why I know of things happening in Korea is because I understand the language. There has been no support."

Families and survivors are "still scared to talk about the incident because the current society blames our loved ones for even going to Itaewon in the first place," she added.


On Thursday, the site of the crush was officially designated the "October 29 Memorial Alley," with victims' families unveiling a small street marker near a wall covered with notes for the victims.

While nightlife has slowly returned to the neighborhood over recent months, there are few signs or decorations promoting Halloween in Itaewon.

Still, Lee, the survivor, said she was planning to return to the site of the tragedy this weekend.

"I want to be there this year in my own way to honor the victims," Lee said. "I want to show that it is not our fault that we came to Itaewon for the Halloween festival."

"It is still too early for us to just say 'please remember,'" she added. "There has not been proper closure."

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