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Mexican survivor of Seoul crowd crush feared she’d die in Itaewon


Juliana Velandia Santaella took a photo of young women dressed up as bananas, a hot dog and french fries on the streets of Itaewon at 10:08 p.m. Saturday night. Then she decided to go home, descending a tight alleyway where she would narrowly escape her death.

The 23-year-old medical student from Mexico began to feel squeezed by the crowd, which was slowly pushing hundreds downhill in an alley, the center of an accident that would leave at least 154 people dead and 149 hurt. Her injuries, which sent her to an emergency room and are still debilitating, show what can happen during a dangerous crowd crush.

Velandia was separated from her friend, 21-year-old Carolina Cano of Mexico, and started to feel the weight of other people’s bodies crushing her. “At some point, my feet weren’t even touching the ground anymore,” she said. “There was an unconscious guy on top of me, which was affecting my breathing.”

Velandia focused on taking shallow breaths through her mouth as her lungs began to feel like they were being flattened. People around her were screaming for help or calling for the police, she said, but then they progressively fell silent as their bodies grew limp above and below her. Stuck in a pile of people, she recalled, only her neck could freely move as the rest of her body was restrained.

“I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to be next.’ I really thought I was going to die,” she said. “I was completely paralyzed. At some point, I couldn’t feel my legs. I couldn’t even move my toes.”

She was stuck like that, unable to feel parts of her body, until a young man standing on an elevated ledge grabbed her arms and ripped her from the crowd. She said she was able to then look at her phone and saw that it was 10:57 p.m.

After a few minutes, she started regaining sensation in her legs. Even then, “there were so many unconscious bodies on the floor that I couldn’t even walk,” she said.

She managed to make it home, but on Sunday, she developed a fever and spent four hours in the emergency room at St. Mary’s Hospital at the Catholic University of Korea, where she was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a life-threatening condition that involves muscle injury and necrosis as cells — in Velandia’s case, in the leg — begin to die. The muscle tissue releases proteins and electrolytes into the blood and can damage the heart or kidneys or cause permanent disability or death. On Friday, doctors will check her kidneys for damage. Speaking from her dorm room on Monday, she said the pain has gotten worse. One leg is swollen and purple, and she is unable to place her entire foot on the ground as she walks.

Even now, her chest hurts if she breathes too deeply.

Ali Asgary, an expert in disaster and emergency management at York University in Canada, said crowd disasters are complicated and not very well understood.

“Injuries and fatalities in these situations can be caused by a combination of factors working together,” he said in an email. Those factors include the density of people, how strong the walls are, whether the ground is uneven or how narrow the space is, he added.

Here’s what causes crowd crushes like the deadly one in Seoul

Other safety experts have reported restrictive asphyxia, head trauma and rib fractures as possible causes of injury or death in crowd crushes. And the difficulty authorities often have in evacuating the injured or providing speedy medical care can make things worse, according to Rohini Haar, an emergency physician who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “Unfortunately, once a crush starts, it’s hard to stop.”

According to Velandia, many people were trying to move bodies to clearer ground to perform CPR as she escaped the crowd late Saturday. Some people who appeared to be lifeless had vomit in their mouths and around them, suggesting they had choked, she said.

She found her friend, Cano, who had borrowed a stranger’s cellphone to call her. The two met in front of Itaewon Station, the place where so many partygoers had started their Halloween night.

“We hugged and we cried a lot when we saw each other, because we really thought the other was dead,” Velandia said. “It’s a miracle that we are alive, really.”

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