Seoul crowd-obsessed Mexican survivor fears she’ll die in Itaewon


Juliana Velandia Santaella took pictures of young women dressed as bananas, hot dogs and french fries on the streets of Itaewon at 10:08 p.m. Saturday. Then she decides to go home and walk down a narrow alley where she will narrowly escape death.

The 23-year-old medical student from Mexico began to feel overwhelmed by the crowd, which was slowly pushing hundreds of people down an alley that was at the center of an accident that killed at least 154 and injured 149. Her injuries, which sent her to the emergency room and are still debilitating, show what can happen during a dangerous crowd squeeze.

Velandia separated from her friend, 21-year-old Mexican Carolina Cano, and began to feel the weight of other people’s bodies on her. “At some point, my feet didn’t even touch the ground anymore,” she said. “There was a comatose guy on top of me and it affected my breathing.”

Vilandia focused on shallow breathing through her mouth as her lungs started to feel like they were being squashed. People around her were screaming for help or calling the police, but gradually fell silent as their bodies weakened above and below her, she said. She recalled being trapped in a crowd with only the neck free to move while the rest of the 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 so stuck, unable to feel parts of her body, until a young man standing on the elevated grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the crowd.She said she could then look at her phone and see it’s 10:57pm

After a few minutes, her legs began to feel back. Even so, “there were so many unconscious bodies on the floor that I couldn’t even walk,” she said.

She managed to get home, but on Sunday, she developed a fever and spent four hours in an emergency room in St. Petersburg. At the Catholic University of Korea’s Mary Hospital, she was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a life-threatening condition that involves muscle damage and necrosis as cells — in Velandia’s case, in the legs — begin to die. 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. In her dorm room on Monday, she said the pain got worse. One leg was swollen and purple, and he was unable to put his entire foot on the ground while walking.

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

Crowd disasters are complex and people don’t know much about them, said Ali Asgary, a disaster and emergency management expert at York University in Canada.

“Causes in these situations may be the result of a combination of factors,” he said in an email. These factors include the density of people, how solid the walls are, whether the ground is uneven or how narrow the space is, he added.

This is what causes the crowds, like the deadly crowds in Seoul

Other safety experts report restrained suffocation, head trauma and rib fractures as possible causes of injury or death in crowd crushes. Rohini Haar, an emergency physician who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health, said the situation could be made worse by the frequent difficulties authorities have in evacuating the wounded or providing expedited medical care. “Unfortunately, once you start a crush, it’s hard to stop.”

When she fled the crowd late Saturday, many were trying to move the body to a cleaner location for CPR, according to Verandia. She said some of the lifeless-looking people vomited in and around their mouths, suggesting they were suffocating.

She found her friend Kano, who borrowed a stranger’s cell phone to call her. The two met in front of Itaewon Station, where many party lovers started their Halloween night.

“When we saw each other, we hugged and cried a lot because we really thought each other was dead,” Verandia said. “It’s a miracle we’re still alive, really.”

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