‘I couldn’t breathe’: Seoul crowd crush survivor writes to heal

Kim Cho-long escaped death by chance last October — pulled from packed streets in South Korea’s capital by a friend, as those around her were swept into an alley where 159 people later died in a crowd crush.

Kim, 33, told AFP she’d been going to Halloween parties in Seoul’s Itaewon district for years, but there were more people at the 2022 event — the first post-pandemic celebration — than she’d ever seen before.

The crowd was so dense that she was quickly swept off her feet by the pressure, trapped and unable to breathe until her friend saw her and somehow managed to drag her into a nearby bar.

“I was completely stuck in the crowd as I was pushed back and forth,” said Kim, who has written a book about her Itaewon experience called “Am I a Disaster Survivor?”

“The pressure first started from behind, and then pressure came from the front so hard that my feet were lifted off from the ground and I couldn’t breathe.”

By chance, she was swept to the side of the street, and when her back hit a wall, she was able to catch her breath, before her friend saw her and pulled her out of the melee.

With no police or official crowd control measures in sight — an official investigation would later slam “massive failings” of preparation and response — Kim said the confusion and chaos continued for hours, as she sheltered in a nearby bar with her friend.

She had no idea what was happening or how close she had been to death. 

“I went out to the streets of Itaewon and saw people lying on the street receiving CPR. Ambulances were parked disorderly on the road and people were being taken away, but even then I didn’t think that all those people were dead,” she said.

Writing to heal

Kim walked for hours to get home, in a state of shock.

“I couldn’t sleep for two days. As if obsessed with something, I couldn’t turn off the news on TV. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I only drank water and kept watching the news.”

Kim, a writer, struggled with feelings of survivor’s guilt, and eventually, her therapist suggested that writing about her feelings might allow her to process what had happened.

At first, she shared her writing only in private forums online, where she received overwhelmingly positive feedback, including from others who said it had helped them with their own Itaewon-linked trauma.

After one of her posts went viral, local newspapers asked her to write for them, which she eventually agreed to — but the reaction from the general public was overwhelmingly negative.

“When it was released to the public, I did not receive comfort from the reactions I received. Personally, it was good as a way to release my feelings and it was helpful in relieving my depression,” she said. 

Critics showered her with personal insults and told her she was spoiled and shouldn’t have been out partying.

But despite the onslaught of online attacks — which are also aimed at families of victims campaigning for an independent inquiry into the disaster — Kim remains positive.

‘All survivors’

“I believe that all citizens living in South Korea are survivors of the Itaewon disaster,” she said.

The police probe did not find any senior officials were to blame for the disaster, and none of the lower-level officials who are being prosecuted have yet been convicted or jailed.

“Looking at this disaster from a survivor’s point of view for a year, I don’t think anything has been resolved and the truth has not been revealed legally, socially, or at any government level,” Kim said.

But her near-death experience has totally changed her view of society, for the better.

“In the past, I never once imagined how bereaved families would live on. I thought it had nothing to do with me and it was none of my business,” she said. 

“But now I realize it could have happened to me, and their pain could be mine someday. So I started to sympathize with them and took more interest in their lives.”

Kim, who hopes to have her book translated into English, said she plans to continue writing about what happened at Itaewon, to keep the memories of all the victims alive.

“I will keep thinking hard about what I can do so that they are remembered for a long time.”