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

By Paula Hancocks, Yoonjung Seo and David Hawley, CNN

“She’s smiling, look at her smile, her face.” Oh Il-seok looks lovingly at a photograph of his daughter taken in the last hours of her life. As he takes off his glasses to wipe his eyes, his wife whispers, “Ji-min is my friend, she is my best friend.”

Oh Ji-min, 25, was among the 158 people who died in a crowd crush during Halloween festivities in Seoul’s Itaewon nightlife district on October 29.

Her parents have the unthinkable task of piecing together her last moments from selfies and photos taken on her mobile phone.

At 9:35 p.m., the photos show Ji-min smiling inside a bar. At 9:59 p.m., she messages a friend to say she is going home. A few photos with fellow revelers in fancy dress follow, then, at 10:07 p.m., the last photo of Ji-min, smiling with her friend Kim.

The pair then headed for the subway, weaving their way through the masses. Within minutes they were caught in a panicking crowd, and swept off their feet into a narrow alleyway where scores of people are to die.

‘Like we were sucked in’

“We didn’t mean to go down that alleyway … it felt like we got sucked in,” recalled Kim, who asked to be identified only by her family name and spoke to CNN in the days leading up to a memorial held for the victims on Friday.

“I got separated from (Ji-min) as two other men walked between us. When that happened, I lost my loafers but my feet were not touching the ground and I was just being moved by the crowd.”

Official sources time the fatal crush as beginning at 10:15 p.m., just eight minutes after Ji-min’s final selfie. All 158 deaths took place in the alleyway — about 4 meters (13 feet) wide — that the two young women were swept into. In addition to the many young South Koreans and 26 foreigners who died, 196 people were injured — Kim among them.

“Someone in front me fell and I fell down too,” Kim said. “The next thing I realized was that I was lying on top of a foreign man and people piled on top of me and others. I was on the second layer of that pile.”

Hope came when she saw a face of a paramedic in front of her. He tried to pull out a woman but every time her body moved the pile of people screamed.

“We were already pressed but the attempt to pull her added more pain to us, so he had to stop,” Kim said.

One police officer who attended the scene said by the time he arrived there was already a pile of bodies in the alleyway.

“We couldn’t pull people out from the bottom, there was too much pressure, I assume they had already died,” said the officer, who requested anonymity due to fear of retribution from superiors.

“People in the second and third layers were fading, crying out for help, but we couldn’t pull them out.”

His account tallies with that of a first responder who told CNN they saw up to “10 rows of faces (but) we couldn’t even see their legs.”

Kim’s recollection of her own rescue is hazy. “I was pulled out and I spent some time lying on the ground. I think I lost myself for sometime and woke up again. It was around 12:30 a.m. when I was moved in an ambulance.”

“I was hospitalized for one night and discharged. I couldn’t walk until the next morning. I pinched my legs but didn’t feel anything. I left hospital but I couldn’t feel my legs for about 10 days.”

‘That image comes to me so I can’t sleep’

Ji-min’s mother, Kim Eun-mi, had no idea her daughter was in Itaewon. She began to worry because Ji-min always came home early from a night out.

“I met Ji-min for shopping that day as it was Saturday. After shopping we had lunch together and she was off to see her friend. So when I heard from my son that she went to Itaewon, I said, ‘no, she went to see her friend.'”

All through the night, the family made frantic calls to Ji-min’s cell phone, hospitals and the police, visiting her nearby flat in case she had already come home.

At 1 p.m. the following afternoon the family received a call asking them to come and identify Ji-min’s body at a hospital morgue.

“It is truly devastating to identify your own child,” Kim Eun-mi said. In between sobs, her husband added, “When I go to bed… that image comes to me so I can’t sleep.”

The family go to see Ji-min everyday at the memorial park, close to home. On every sleepless night, Ji-min’s parents visit an online chat room that brings together family members of those who lost their loved ones in the tragedy.

Kim Eun-mi said it is helpful to talk to others in the same situation because only they can understand each other’s pain.

Grief is becoming clouded with unanswered questions and anger in the home where Ji-min grew up.

“The hardest and most frustrating part is that no one is held responsible. The tragedy happened, but no one is responsible,” Kim Eun-mi said.

A consultative group formed by the bereaved families of more than 97 victims of the crush has called for a formal apology from President Yoon Suk Yeol and demanded the dismissal of the country’s safety minister for failing to prevent a tragedy.

While Yoon has expressed his “condolences” to the families, he has stopped short of an apology — saying that “people who are specifically responsible” should be held accountable.

Safety Minister Lee Sang-min, speaking on Oct. 30, said the tragedy could not have been prevented by dispatching police or fire department forces in advance.

Ongoing investigation

A special investigation is ongoing within the National Police Agency but a parliamentary investigation has yet to begin due to political infighting.

So far, two police officers have been dismissed and arrested, accused of destroying an internal report about the risks stemming from a large crowd gathering in Itaewon during Halloween festivities.

The former chief police officer of Yongsan district Lee Im-jae is being investigated on suspicion of professional negligence and forging an official document, while the former emergency monitoring officer Song Byung-joo is being investigated on suspicion of professional negligence.

The police officer who spoke to CNN said he is concerned by the direction the investigation appears to be taking. He fears it is too focused on mistakes made after the tragedy rather than the lack of safety planning ahead of time.

“The problem with this now is that the people who should really be responsible are not taking responsibility. The direction of the investigation is not looking up, only down,” said the police officer.

“There may have been mistakes trying to save just one more life but if you blame us, who would want to do this job.”

Ji-min’s parents said they have heard nothing 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.

As they look through a box of birthday cards and photos with friends retrieved from her daughter’s flat, they struggle with the life-changing tragedy that should never have happened.

“She was so warm and lovely,” Kim Eun-mi said of her daughter. “She was such a lovely daughter to me but she’s not with me anymore.”

Her voice falters as sobs overtake her once again.

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