By Ju-min Park, Heekyong Yang and Jihoon Lee
SEOUL (Reuters) – “Dad, I’m going out” were the last words Jung Hae-moon heard his daughter say, at the end of a conversation they had on the phone on Saturday when she declined an invitation at dinner.
Hours later, Jung Joo-hee, 30, was among 156 people, most in their 20s, killed in the South Korean capital as they celebrated Halloween without COVID restrictions for the first time. in three years.
The young woman’s family buried her ashes in a peaceful family plot outside Seoul on Thursday, with a sapling planted and bouquets near her tombstone and a somber ceremony of prayers and tears.
“Rest well. Mom and dad will come to see you,” Jung Hae-moon said as the family stood there with their daughter’s poodle.
As news of the disaster unfolded on Saturday, Jung Hae-moon rushed to Itaewon, an area of narrow streets packed with bars and shops, only to be met with chaos as distraught youths moved about in their school costumes. Halloween and rows of ambulances were picking up victims.
More than 12 hours later, he found Joo-hee in a morgue, lifeless, swollen and bruised.
Joo-hee’s mother, Lee Hyo-sook, said her daughter was a delight, a best friend who loved animals and wine.
“The space she leaves is too big. The place she left in the family is too big, the emptiness,” Lee told Reuters after the funeral, speaking at a cafe run by Joo-hee. .
The café is closed by a black sign indicating: “In mourning”.
The anguish of Joo-hee’s family is felt by all 156 bereaved families as a traditional three-day vigil comes to an end and their loved one is placed in a coffin to be seen for the last time before the death. burial or cremation.
Their grief is shared by the county as a whole as it struggles to come to terms with the disaster that ended so many young lives on what should have been a fun night.
Of the 156 dead, 101 were women, the government said.
Another grieving father, Song Jae-woong, said his daughter, Young-ju, 24, was a gentle soul who quickly befriended her classmates, more than 200 of whom came to his funeral.
Young-ju dreamed of becoming an actress, her father said at a funeral home in Seoul.
“Then things went like this,” Song said.
“Her friends told me that my daughter used to seek out and befriend anyone. She had a caring soul.”
“It’s all over now.”
Some families had no idea that their children were even in the crowd at the Itaewon entertainment district on Saturday night.
“I had no idea she was there. It was impossible, I couldn’t believe it,” Lim’s father said at a funeral home as he and his family observed the funeral rites.
The father requested that he and his daughter be identified only by their surname, Lim.
The man usually lives abroad and had not seen his only child for three years as COVID disrupted travel. He first heard about the disaster when an acquaintance texted him about it, with no one knowing the girl was caught up in it.
Struggling with grief, he pulled out his phone to show the message.
“She was so creative and pretty,” the man said, adding that he often took his daughter for walks in Itaewon. He used to park their car at the Hamilton Hotel next to the driveway where Lim died.
“I know this street very well.”
For many parents, anger boils over with grief.
They wonder why their children were celebrating Halloween in the first place, a totally foreign concept to older Koreans.
But the biggest question for many of those mourning their children is why no security measures were applied to control the crowd.
“I am beyond angry. This is outrageous because in any emergency, the country must protect its people and keep them safe,” said Lee, Joo-hee’s mother.
(Reporting by Heekyong Yang, Ju-min Park, Jihoon Lee, Hyunyoung Yi, Dogyun Kim, Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Robert Birsel and Raju Gopalakrishnan)