When he arrived in the South Korean city of Seoul in late August, American exchange student Steven Blesi quickly developed a wide circle of friends from around the world.
The 20-year-old from Atlanta was studying at Hangyang University in the city, as part of an American study abroad program. He had planned to meet several people from the course on Saturday in the Itaewon district of Seoul, to celebrate Halloween with thousands of other young revelers.
But when he failed to show up, his friends and family began a frantic search to find him, only to finally learn he had died in the crush of the crowd in a crowded alley that killed 156 people , mostly young people.
Blesi’s best friend in the program was Ian Chang, 21, from Florida, who was also his neighbor in their college dorms.
“We really like adventures, doing spontaneous things,” Chang told CNN in an exclusive interview this week. “And just explore the city.”
Blesi loved “dancing, drinking, having fun,” Chang said, and “every time he met someone new, it had a big impact on him.”
On Saturday evening, Chang and Blesi were to meet in the narrow streets of Itaewon, a working-class neighborhood lined with nightclubs, bars and fast food outlets. The couple had been together earlier in the day, and then Chang had gone home to change.
“At first, we just wanted to go to Itaewon to see how it was, to see what’s so special about Halloween there,” Chang said. “Because we heard from people (that) Itaewon was going to be big on Halloween.”
But when he arrived in Itaewon around 9:40 p.m., Chang began to realize the danger looming. He sent Blesi a Snapchat message at 10:17 p.m. urging him to avoid Itaewon and meet up in the Hongdae district instead.
“It’s too busy. And there’s nowhere to go,” Chang’s message read.
As news of the horror that unfolded in Itaewon Alley over the next few hours spread, Blesi’s other friends also tried to call and message him.
“You can come to my place…it’s safe here.” Where are you Steven? messaged Wassim Essebane, a 24-year-old Belgian exchange student, around 1 a.m. Sunday via KakaoTalk, a South Korean messaging app similar to WhatsApp.
Another friend, Stefanie Reuss, 22, was also trying to find Blesi from her home more than 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) away in Austria. Reuss helped raise the alarm by posting messages on Instagram and Twitter in an attempt to track him down.
One of the people Reuss contacted was 19-year-old Olivia Kim from Houston, Texas, who had been dating Blesi for a few weeks. Kim had planned to go to Itaewon on Saturday night, but changed her plans at the last minute. She was supposed to have a date with Blesi on Sunday afternoon.
“Steven and I have been talking almost every day for about a month since our first date in early October,” Kim told CNN. “I immediately adored his emotional generosity, wit, adventurous spirit and upbeat personality.”
Kim had lost contact with Blesi on Saturday, and when he still didn’t respond Sunday morning, she grew concerned that he was one of the victims.
Back in Atlanta, Blesi’s father, Steve, was also growing increasingly desperate.
“Maybe half an hour before this tragedy happened, I texted him on WhatsApp… ‘I know you’re on the go. Be careful. I love you.’ And I never got an answer,” Blesi’s father said.
Over the next several hours, repeated missed calls and messages went unanswered.
Around 6 a.m. Sunday morning, Chang said Blesi’s mother emailed him, seeking help in finding her son. Chang said they tried to call hospitals in Seoul, asking their Korean friends to help them.
But around noon on Sunday, they all learned the news they feared the most, after being told by Blesi’s father, who had been briefed by the US Embassy.
Another American student in the program, Anne Gieske, 20, of Kentucky, also died in the crush of the crowd on Saturday evening. She had been with Blesi earlier that evening, although it is unclear if they were together when they died.
Earlier in the evening, young revelers had thought the crowded streets of Seoul’s Itaewon district were part of the fun of the Halloween experience.
“At first we thought it was funny,” said Anne-Lou Chevalier, a 22-year-old exchange student from France who survived the crush of the crowds. “We heard that Halloween in Itaewon was amazing.”
But when around 100,000 people finally crammed into the narrow lanes and alleyways, panic began to set in.
“We (started) getting very, very stuck together and crushed, and then we heard people screaming and crying,” Chevalier said.
“We were trying to help people, because there were a lot of people (who) couldn’t breathe,” said her friend Alice Sannier, 18, also French.
The friends separated in the chaos of the crowd, and Chevalier fainted twice in the crush, adding that it was “like dying”.
“I remember I had no air, so I started choking,” Chevalier said. “Somehow I got evacuated with my friend, so I’m very, very lucky.”
The two friends said their slight build made them more vulnerable.
“Because we’re short, there (were) a lot of strangers who were (much) taller and they were surrounding us, so at one point you can’t look, then you start to panic “, Knight said.
A total of 101 women and 55 men were killed in the disaster.
Sannier and several other eyewitnesses who spoke to CNN said they saw several people pushing through the crowd, which is being investigated as a possible trigger for the domino effect that took place.
“Everyone was pushing, that’s why so many people were dying,” Sannier said, adding that they didn’t see any police when they were in the crowded alley.
Records show eleven calls were made to police to alert them to the situation in Itaewon before the crush hit on Saturday night, and the head of South Korea’s National Police Agency said the response from policing these calls was “inadequate”. An investigation is underway.
Friends and families of the victims are only just beginning to understand what happened to their loved ones, many of whom were just starting out in life.
“It’s unimaginable,” Reuss told CNN.
Reuss had met Blesi when she spent three weeks traveling in Seoul in September. They had quickly become friends, partying together, doing karaoke and eating Korean barbecue, and they planned to travel together in Europe.
“He was curious about the world,” Reuss said. “He had so many dreams. I look a lot like him. It makes me sad.”
Blesi’s father said his son had “always been an adventurer”. He was an Eagle Scout, loved basketball and wanted to learn multiple languages, he said.
“He had an incredibly bright future which is now over,” he added.
One of Blesi and Chang’s most recent adventures was a hike a few weeks ago on the mountainous island of Jeju, off the southwest coast of South Korea.
“We (were) all impressed by how far we were from home,” Chang said. “Going on all these adventures together. And explore something that we probably hadn’t thought of a year ago.
Besides hiking and enjoying South Korea’s food and nightlife, Blesi also loved its cultural traditions.
“He had never been to Asia, so he really wanted to explore,” Chang said. “He was really excited to go, for example, to temples.”
His friend Essebane told CNN that Blesi was “a great guy”.
“He was kind, open, made you feel comfortable, had such a warm personality and he was funny,” Essebane said. “I will never forget him.”
In just a few months of knowing him, Chang said he came to think of Blesi as his “brother”.
“Steven was the nicest person ever,” Chang said.
“I’m just glad I had him in my life,” he added. “I wish I could have made more memories with him.”
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