Steven Blesi: US student killed in Seoul on Halloween was ‘curious about the world’



CNN

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 the city’s Hangyang University as part of a U.S. study abroad program. He had planned to meet up with 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 didn’t turn up, his friends and family began a frantic search for him, before learning he had died in the stampede in a crowded alleyway that killed 156 young people, in most of them

Blesi’s best friend on the show was 21-year-old Ian Chang from Florida, who was also his college dorm roommate.

“We really like adventures, doing spontaneous things,” Chang told CNN in an exclusive interview this week. “And just exploring the city.”

Blesi loved to “dance, drink, have fun,” Chang said, and “every time he met someone new, he had a big impact on them.”

Steven Blesi with his friends.

On Saturday night, Chang and Blesi were supposed to meet in the narrow streets of Itaewon, a popular district full of nightclubs, bars and fast food joints. The pair had been together earlier that day, after which Chang had gone home to change.

“At first we just wanted to go to Itaewon to see what it was like, see what’s special about Halloween there,” Chang said. “Because we heard from people (that) Itaewon will be big on Halloween.”

But when he arrived in Itaewon around 9:40 p.m., Chang began to realize the danger that was unfolding. He sent Blesi a Snapchat message at 10:17 p.m. urging him to avoid Itaewon and meet in the Hongdae neighborhood.

“It’s too full. And there’s nowhere to go,” Chang’s message said.

As word spread of the horror that unfolded in Itaewon Alley over the next few hours, Blesi’s other friends also tried to call and text him.

“You can come to my place… it’s safe here. Where are you Steven?” sent a message to 24-year-old Belgian student Wassim Essebane around 1 a.m. Sunday through KakaoTalk, a South Korean messaging app similar to WhatsApp.

Another friend, Stefanie Reuss, 22, was also trying to track down Blesi from her home more than 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) away in Austria. Reuss helped raise the alarm, posting messages on Instagram and Twitter trying to find him.

Stefanie Reuss, Ian Chang and Steven Blesi.

One of the people Reuss contacted was Olivia Kim, 19, of Houston, Texas, who had been dating Blesi for a few weeks. Kim had planned to go to Itaewon on Saturday night, but changed plans at the last minute. He was supposed to go on a date with Blesi on Sunday afternoon.

“Steven and I have been talking almost every day for about a month after we went on our first date in early October,” Kim told CNN. “I immediately adored her emotional generosity, wit, adventurous spirit and optimistic personality.”

Kim had lost contact with Blesi on Saturday, and when he still hadn’t responded by Sunday morning, she began to worry that he was one of the victims.

Back home in Atlanta, Blesi’s father, Steve, was also increasingly desperate.

“Maybe half an hour before this tragedy happened, I texted him on WhatsApp… ‘I know you’re out. Take care. I love you.’ And I never got an answer,” Blesi’s father said.

Repeated calls and missed messages went unanswered for the next several hours.

Around 6 a.m. Sunday, Chang said Blesi’s mother emailed him, seeking help locating her son. Chang said they tried calling hospitals in Seoul and asked their Korean-speaking friends for help.

But around noon on Sunday, they all got the news they feared the most, after Blesi’s father, who had been informed by the US embassy.

Another American student in the program, Anne Gieske, 20, of Kentucky, also died Saturday night in the crowd. She had been with Blesi earlier in the evening, although it is unclear if they were together when they died.

In the early evening, young revelers had thought the packed 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 French exchange student who survived the crush of the crowd. “We heard that Halloween in Itaewon was amazing.”

But when an estimated 100,000 people eventually crowded into the narrow streets and alleys, panic began to set in.

“We (started) getting really, really stuck and crushed, and then we heard some 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, also French, 18.

Police stand guard next to the alley where a deadly crowd crush occurred during Halloween celebrations in Seoul's Itaewon district.

The friends were separated in the chaos of the crowd, and Chevalier passed out twice in the crush, adding that he felt “like dying”.

“I remember I had no air, so I started suffocating,” Chevalier said. “I somehow got evacuated with my friend, so I’m very, very lucky.”

The two friends said their slight frames made them more vulnerable.

“Because we’re small in size, there were a lot of foreigners who were (much) taller and surrounded us, so at one point you can’t get some air and you start freaking out,” Chevalier said.

In total, 101 women and 55 men died in the disaster.

Sannier and several other eyewitnesses who spoke to CNN said they saw several people pushing into the crowd, which is being investigated as a possible trigger for the domino effect that took place.

“Everybody was pushing, that’s why so many people were dying,” Sannier said, adding that they didn’t see any police officers when they were in the crowded alley.

Records show that 11 calls were made to police to warn of the situation in Itaewon before the crush happened on Saturday evening, and the head of South Korea’s National Police Agency said the response police response to these calls was “inadequate”. An investigation is underway.

Friends and family of the victims are just beginning to process 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 become fast friends, partying together and doing karaoke and eating Korean barbecue, and were making plans to travel Europe together.

“I was curious about the world,” Reuss said. “He had a lot of dreams. I’m a lot like him. It makes me sad.”

Blesi’s father said his son had “always been an adventurer”. He said he was an Eagle Scout, liked basketball and wanted to learn several languages.

“He had an incredibly bright future that is now gone,” he added.

One of Blesi and Chang’s most recent adventures was a hiking trip a few weeks ago, on the mountainous island of Jeju, off the southwest coast of South Korea.

Steven Blesi, Ian Chang and Anne Gieske on a trip to Jeju.

“We were all in awe of how far we’ve been from home,” Chang said. “Having all these adventures together. And exploring something we probably wouldn’t have thought about a year ago.”

In addition to hiking and enjoying South Korea’s food and nightlife, Blesi also loved its cultural traditions.

“I had never been to Asia, so I really wanted to explore,” Chang said. “I was very excited to go into, say, temples.”

His friend Essebane told CNN that Blesi was “an absolutely great guy.”

“He was friendly, open, made you feel comfortable, had such a warm personality and was funny,” Essebane said. “I will never forget him.”

A memorial to Steven Blesi outside the Business Studies Building at Hangyang University, where he was studying on an exchange program.

Within just a few months of meeting each other, Chang said he had come to think of Blesi as his “brother.”

“Steven was the kindest person ever,” Chang said.

“I’m glad I had him in my life,” she added. “I wish I had made more memories with him.”

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