SEOUL— In tears, Philomene Aby’s hands shook as she asked workers at a South Korean community centre for any news of her 22-year-old son, missing in the wake of a crowd surge in Seoul that left at least 151 people dead on Saturday.
Her son, Masela, went to work at a club in the city’s Itaewon area around 6 p.m. on Saturday. That was the last time Aby, a Seoul resident from the Ivory Coast, saw him.
“I called his number but … he wasn’t answering,” Aby told Reuters while standing in the Hannam-dong Community Service Center, which became a makeshift missing persons facility in the wake of the disaster.
Bureaucrats who typically handle birth certificates or housing registrations sought to help hundreds of distraught people seeking details of their relatives.
Officers at the centre manned emergency phone lines, taking hundreds of frantic calls to find missing people.
“No one is telling me the truth,” said Aby, who has lived in Seoul with her son for 18 years. With no sign of news about the son, Aby left the centre for the Ivory Coast embassy.
While hers was a happy ending when Masela finally made it home safe and sound, others were not so fortunate.
One person broke down and kneeled on the floor after speaking to some officials at the centre, according to a Reuters witness. A white board in the main office lists updated numbers of calls every hour, totalling more than 4,100 since 5:30 a.m. on Sunday.
By late Sunday, all but one of the 154 fatalities had been identified.
Interior Minister Lee Sang-min told a briefing it took more time for foreign nationals or teens who have yet to be registered with the government, in which cases they have to directly check with the families.
One father came to collect his 20-something daughter’s body at a funeral home linked to a hospital in Seoul, having received a call at 1 a.m. from authorities who identified her.
“This news came like a bolt from the blue sky,” he said.
The man, who asked not to be identified, said the family had ordered a car to move the body to their hometown outside Seoul and start the three-day funeral process.
An official at the funeral home said there were at least two bodies from the incident at the facility on Sunday.
They both appeared to have been from outside of Seoul, leading to a delay in family members being able to retrieve the remains, the official said.
“The families need to get this certificate from the police, then we can release the bodies to the families,” the official said.
“If the family would want to find out the cause of the death, then they could request an autopsy, but for these bodies, the cause of death seems pretty clear to me.”
An official from the Seoul Metropolitan Government told the family of the young woman that plans for supporting victims’ families were still being discussed.
“It’s sad and difficult to tell you this that support plans for the victims’ families have not been decided yet,” the official said.
“If the family is transferring the body to their hometown to hold the funeral, please do what you wish to do.”
—Reporting by Ju-min Park and Heekyong Yang; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Lincoln Feast.