Itaewon, Post-Tragedy

Minutes to death: Itaewon Halloween selfies help families piece together tragedy that killed 158

Two of my friends and I celebrated Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Itaewon. “Celebrate” is a loose term, as we merely went out to an Irish pub for an afternoon Christmas buffet dinner. On the night of New Year’s Eve, the South African restaurant we went to was packed, but the streets remained empty. After dinner, the vast majority of the people out in the streets were hawkers trying to get you to go into their restaurant/bar. A few restaurants had people enjoying their time, but others were open but empty. We had a single drink at a Spanish tapas bar and returned home around 9pm.

a pillar in the Itaewon train station

This was only my second/third time in Itaewon. Even though I’ve lived in Korea for 2+ years, life under the Covid-19 umbrella means that I’ve missed out on a lot of experiences that others would have had in prior years. Going to Itaewon, going to Gangnam or Myeongdong… not only are those places far from where I live north of Seoul, but there were few reasons to go, as many museums were closed and streets known for shopping are instead full of emptied-out, for rent storefronts.

Thankfully, I had no personal connection to the Itaewon crowd crush accident that took 158 lives Halloween weekend. I knew no one who went to Itaewon to celebrate Halloween, and even though celebrating Halloween in Itaewon was the “it” thing to do prior to Covid-19, I am too old for that scene and had no plans to travel to Itaewon to party with the younger crowd.

I had been wanting to go to Itaewon to see the memorial and offer my prayers, and when the Christmas dinner invite came up, decided it would be a good time to support the local Itaewon community. The community was hit pretty hard by Covid-19 (in large part due to the lack of tourists in this very touristy and foreigner-friendly area) and the aftermath of the crowd crush left a lot of people wanting little to do with Itaewon. I think its important to support the businesses there, and to do so with some decorum and respect for what happened.

The alleyway in which the crowd crush took place is only a few meters from Itaewon Station exit 1. At the front entrance to the alley is a large blue poster that reads, “Memory is strong. With the power of our memories, I hope we can create a world where disasters and disasters do not repeat. Please remember the world of 159 people.” (Note: I think the poster creator is counting the suicide of the high school survivor as the 159th casualty here, as I would as well. Elsewhere, there is graffiti of a foot being lifted up off the ground and the number 158, the actual death count of the crowd crush.)

At a small table in front of the blue poster, someone had left two Christmas cupcakes and there were post-it notes and paper and tape for writing notes. On the ground were several colored candles, blown out.

The alleyway itself has several layers of post-it notes expressing thoughts and prayers. Someone had hung clear plastic on top of the first layer, and people have kept adding post-it notes to the top of the plastic, creating a beautiful layered effect. There are some white chrysanthemums, a traditional Korean flower that represents grief, as well as a few dried bouquets under the plastic. You can see how many more post-it notes were posted from December 25th to the 31st when we visited again.

A lone policeman patrolling the alley and I watched as a young man went to each section of the alleyway and bowed deeply before leaving. May all those who perished rest in peace, and may peace find those who were affected by the tragedy. We are so sorry we could not protect you. We will not forget you.

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