Survivor’s injuries in Seoul show how crowd crushes can kill

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Juliana Velandia Santaella took a photo of young women dressed as bananas, hot dogs and french fries on the streets of Itaewon at 10:08pm on Saturday. Then she decides to go home, going down a tight alley where she narrowly escapes her death.

A 23-year-old medical student from Mexico felt crushed by the crowd, which slowly pushed hundreds down an alleyway, the center of an accident that killed at least 154 people and injured 149. Her injuries, which sent her to the emergency room and are still debilitating, show what can happen during a dangerous crowd crush.

Velandia is separated from her friend, 21-year-old Carolina Cano from Mexico, and feels the weight of other people’s bodies crushing her. “At times, my feet were not even touching the ground,” she said. “There was an unconscious man on top of me, which was affecting my breathing.”

Velandia concentrated on taking shallow breaths through her mouth as her lungs felt like they were flattening. People around her were yelling for help or calling the police, she said, but then gradually fell silent as their bodies went limp above and below her. Caught in a pile of people, she remembers, only her neck could move freely as the rest of her body was restrained.

“I thought, ‘OK, 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 a cliff grabbed her arms and tore her away from the crowd. She said she was then able to look at her phone and it was 10:57 p.m

After a few minutes, sensation returned to her legs. Even then, “there were so many unconscious bodies on the ground I couldn’t even walk,” she said.

She made 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 the muscles. Necrosis occurs as lesions and cells — in Wellandia’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 kidney damage. Speaking from her hostel on Monday, she said the pain had worsened. One leg is swollen and purple and she cannot keep her entire foot on the ground when she walks.

Even now her chest hurts if she takes too deep a breath.

Ali Asgari, an expert in disaster and emergency management at York University in Canada, said crowd disasters are complex and poorly understood.

“Injuries and deaths 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.

Here’s what crushes crowds like deadly incidents in Seoul

Other safety experts have noted obstructive breathing, head injuries, and rib fractures as possible causes of injury or death in crowd crushes. According to Rohini Haar, an emergency physician who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health, authorities often have difficulty evacuating the injured or providing rapid medical care. “Unfortunately, once a crush starts, it’s hard to stop.”

As she escaped the crowd late Saturday, many people were trying to move the body to clear ground to perform CPR, according to Velandia. Some people who appeared to be lifeless had vomit in and around their mouths, indicating they had choked, she said.

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

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

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