When he arrived in the South Korean city of Seoul in late August, American exchange student Stephen Blessy quickly made a wide circle of friends from around the world.
The 20-year-old from Atlanta was studying at Hangyang City University as part of an American study abroad program. He planned to meet up with a few people from the course on Saturday in Seoul’s Itaewon district to celebrate Halloween with thousands of other young revelers.
But when he didn’t turn up, his friends and family launched a frantic search to track him down before eventually learning he had died in a stampede in a crowded alleyway that killed 156 mostly young men.
Blessy’s best friend in the program was Yang Chang, 21, from Florida, who was also his roommate in their university dorm.
“We’re very adventurous, doing spontaneous things,” Chang said in an exclusive interview with CNN this week. “And just exploring the city.”
Blessy loved “dancing, drinking, partying,” Chang said, and “every time he met someone new, he made a big impact on them.”
On Saturday night, Chang and Blessy were supposed to meet in the narrow streets of Ithaewon, a popular area with nightclubs, bars and fast food outlets. The pair had been together earlier in the day, after which Chang went home to change.
“At first, we just wanted to go to Itaewon to see what’s special about Halloween,” Chang said. “Because we heard from people (that) Ithaewon will be big on Halloween.”
But when he arrived in Itaewon around 9:40 p.m., Chang began to realize the danger unfolding. He sent Blesi a Snapchat message at 10:17 p.m., urging him to avoid Ithaewon and meet in the Hongdae neighborhood instead.
“It’s too stuffed. And there is nowhere to go,” Chang said in a message.
As news of the horror that unfolded in Itaewon Alley spread over the next few hours, Blessy’s other friends also tried to call and text him.
“You can come to me… it’s safe here. Where are you Stephen?’ texted 24-year-old Belgian exchange student Wassim Esseban around 1 a.m. Sunday through KakaoTalk, a South Korean messaging app similar to WhatsApp.
Another friend, Stephanie Reuss, 22, also tried to track down Blessi from her home more than 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) away in Austria. Royce helped raise the alarm by posting messages on Instagram and Twitter trying to find him.
One of the people Royce contacted was 19-year-old Olivia Kim of Houston, Texas, who had been dating Blessi for several weeks. Kim had planned to go to Itaewon on Saturday night, but changed his plans at the last minute. She was supposed to go on a date with Blessy on Sunday afternoon.
“Stephen and I talked to each other almost daily for a month after our first date in early October,” Kim told CNN. “I am immediately in awe of his emotional generosity, intelligence, adventurous spirit and optimistic nature.”
Kim lost contact with Blessy on Saturday, and when he still hadn’t responded on Sunday morning, she began to worry that he was one of the victims.
Back home in Atlanta, Blessy’s father, Steve, was also feeling increasingly desperate.
“Maybe half an hour before this tragedy, I texted him on WhatsApp… “I know you are outside. Stay safe. I love you.’ And I never got an answer,” said Blessi’s father.
Repeated missed calls and messages went unanswered for the next several hours.
Around 6 a.m. Sunday morning, Chung said Blessy’s mother emailed him asking for help locating her son. Chang said they tried to call a hospital in Seoul, asking their Korean-speaking friends to help.
But around noon on Sunday, they all got the news they feared the most, after Blessy’s father, who had been notified by the US Embassy, told him about it.
Another American student from the program, Anne Giske, 20, of Kentucky, also died in the crowd Saturday night. She had been with Blessy earlier in the evening, although it is unclear if they were together when they died.
Earlier in the evening, young revelers thought the crowded streets in Seoul’s Itaewon district were part of the Halloween fun.
“At first we thought it was funny,” said Anne-Lou Chevalier, a 22-year-old French exchange student who survived the stampede. “We heard Halloween in Ithaewon was awesome.”
But when an estimated 100,000 people eventually crowded into the narrow lanes and alleys, panic set in.
“We (started) being really, really stuck together 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 Sagnier, 18, also from France.
The friends dispersed in the chaos of the crowd, and Chevalier passed out twice in the stampede, adding that he felt “as if he were dying”.
“I remember I had no air so I started gasping,” Chevalier said. “Somehow I evacuated with my friend, so I was very, very lucky.”
The two friends said their slim figure made them more vulnerable.
“Because we’re small, there (were) a lot of foreigners who were (much) taller and they surrounded us, so one moment you’re short of air and then you start to get scared,” Chevalier said.
A total of 101 women and 55 men died in the disaster.
Sunnier and several other witnesses who spoke to CNN said they saw several people being pushed 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 were dying,” Sannier said, adding that they didn’t see any police officers when they were in the crowded alley.
Records show that eleven calls were made to the police to warn of the situation in Itaewon before the disaster occurred on Saturday night, and the head of South Korea’s National Police said the police response to the calls was “inadequate”. An investigation is underway.
Friends and families of the victims are just beginning to understand what happened to their loved ones, many of whom were just starting out in life.
“It’s unimaginable,” Royce told CNN.
Royce met Blessi when she spent three weeks traveling in Seoul in September. They quickly became friends, partying together, playing karaoke and eating Korean barbecue, and planned to travel Europe together.
“He was curious about the world,” Royce said. “He had so many dreams. I look a lot like him. I’m sad.”
Blessy’s father said his son had “always been an adventurer”. He was an Eagle Scout, loved basketball and wanted to learn several languages, he said.
“He had an incredibly bright future that is gone now,” he added.
One of Blessy and Chang’s most recent adventures was a hiking trip a few weeks ago to the mountainous island of Jeju off the southwest coast of South Korea.
“We (were) just blown away by how far we were from home,” Chang said. “Let’s go on all these adventures together. And to explore things that we probably didn’t think about a year ago.”
Besides hiking and enjoying South Korea’s food and nightlife, Blessy also loved its cultural traditions.
“He had never been to Asia, so he really wanted to explore it,” Chang said. “He was very happy to go to temples, for example.”
His friend Essebane told CNN that Blessi was an “absolutely wonderful guy.”
“He was kind, outgoing, made you feel comfortable, had such a warm personality and was funny,” Esseban said. “I will never forget him.”
In just a few months of dating, Chang said he came to think of Blessy as his “brother.”
“Stephen was the nicest person ever,” Chang said.
“I’m just glad he was in my life,” he added. “I would like to make more memories with him.”