When he arrived in the South Korean city of Seoul in late August, American exchange student Steven Blesi quickly built up a wide circle of friends from all over the world.
The 20-year-old from Atlanta attended Hangyang University in the city as part of an American study abroad program. He planned to meet several people from the course in Seoul’s Itaewon district on Saturday to celebrate Halloween with thousands of other young revelers.
But when he didn’t show up, his friends and family began a frantic search for him, before finally learning that he had died in the crowd in a crowded alley, killing 156 mostly young people.
Blesi’s best friend on the program was Ian Chang, 21, from Florida, who was also his neighbor in their dorm rooms.
“We kind of like adventures, doing spontaneous things,” Chang told CNN this week in an exclusive interview. “And just explore 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.”
On Saturday night, Chang and Blesi would meet in the narrow streets of Itaewon, a popular neighborhood filled with nightclubs, bars and fast food restaurants. The couple had been together earlier that day, then Chang had gone home to change.
“At first, we just wanted to go to Itaewon to see what it was like, to see what’s so special about Halloween there,” Chang said. “Because we’ve heard from people that Itaewon will be big on Halloween.”
But when he arrived in Itaewon around 9:40 PM, Chang began to realize the danger that was unfolding. He sent Blesi a Snapchat message at 10:17 PM urging him to avoid Itaewon and instead meet near Hongdae.
“It’s too full. And there’s no place to go,” Chang’s message said.
As the news spread of the horrors unfolding in Itaewon alley over the next few hours, Blesi’s other friends tried to call and message him as well.
‘You can come to me… it’s safe here. Where are you Steve?” 24-year-old Belgian exchange student, Wassim Essebane, sent a message around 1 a.m. on Sunday via KakaoTalk, a South Korean messaging app similar to WhatsApp.
Another friend, Stefanie Reuss, 22, also tried to track down Blesi from her home, more than 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) away in Austria. Reuss helped sound the alarm by posting to Instagram and Twitter to find him.
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 plans at the last minute. She was supposed to go on a date with Blesi on Sunday afternoon.
“Steven and I talked almost every day for about a month after our first date in early October,” Kim told CNN. “I immediately loved his emotional generosity, humor, adventurous spirit and optimistic personality.”
Kim had lost contact with Blesi on Saturday and when he still did not respond on Sunday morning, she began to worry that he was one of the victims.
Back home in Atlanta, Blesi’s father, Steve, was also growing desperate.
“Perhaps half an hour before this tragedy happened, I texted him in WhatsApp… ‘I know you’re out. Watch your safety. I love you.’ And I never got a response back,” Blesi’s father said.
Over the next few hours, the repeated missed calls and messages went unanswered.
Around 6 a.m. Sunday morning, Chang said Blesi’s mother had sent him an email, seeking help tracking down her son. Chang said they were trying to call hospitals in Seoul and enlist their Korean-speaking friends to help.
But around noon on Sunday, they all heard the news they feared most, after hearing it from Blesi’s father, who had been notified by the US embassy.
Another American student of the program, 20-year-old Anne Gieske of Kentucky, also died in the crowd on Saturday night. She had been with Blesi earlier in the evening, although it is not clear if they were together when they died.
Earlier in the evening, the young revelers had thought the crowded streets in 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 mob. “We heard Halloween in Itaewon was great.”
But when an estimated 100,000 people finally crammed into the narrow lanes and alleys, panic started to set in.
“We (started out) very bonded 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, 18-year-old Alice Sannier, also from France.
The friends became separated in the chaos of the crowd, and Chevalier passed out twice in the crush, adding that it felt “like dying.”
“I remember I had no air, so I started to choke,” Chevalier said. “Somehow I was evacuated along with my boyfriend, so I’m very, very lucky.”
The two friends said their small stature made them more vulnerable.
“Because we’re small in size, (there were) a lot of foreigners who were (much) taller and they surrounded us, so at some point you can’t have any air, and then you start to panic,” 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.
“Everyone was pushing, that’s why so many people died,” 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 warning of the situation in Itaewon before Saturday night’s attack, and the head of South Korea’s national police station has said the police response to those calls ” inadequate”. An investigation is underway.
Friends and families of the victims are just beginning to process what has happened to their loved ones, many of whom are just starting out in life.
“It’s unbelievable,” Reuss told CNN.
Reuss had met Blesi while traveling in Seoul for three weeks in September. They quickly became friends, partying together, doing karaoke and Korean barbecue, and making plans to travel around Europe together.
“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 that is now over,” he added.
One of Blesi and Chang’s most recent adventures was a hike a few weeks ago to the mountainous island of Jeju off the southwest coast of South Korea.
“We were all impressed with how far from home we were,” Chang said. “Experience all these adventures together. And discover something we probably wouldn’t have thought of a year ago.”
Besides walking and enjoying South Korea’s food and nightlife, Blesi also loved its cultural traditions.
“He’d never been to Asia, so he was very eager to explore,” Chang said. “He found it very exciting to enter temples, for example.”
His friend Essebane told CNN that Blesi was “an absolutely amazing guy”.
“He was nice, 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 each other, Chang said he had come to think of Blesi as his “brother.”
“Steven was the nicest person there ever was,” Chang said.
“I’m just glad I had him in my life,” he added. “I wish I could have made more memories with him.”