“Why do I feel the survivor’s guilt when I wasn’t even there?”

By Hannah Giron Daygo

20 minutes. I was given 20 minutes to freely walk around and observe my surroundings, with no phone on my hand to track my time. 

It’s lunch time, usually students would be eating their packed lunch. I heard students talk about their choice of food, one of them talking about putting lemons on their food while the other one laughing, maybe thinking, why lemons? 

As I walked around the campus, I noticed that most of the students were around my age. I’m guessing they’re between 20 to 30 years old, just like I’m still in my twenty-something-years-old. 

It’s been three days since the Halloween parties ended, students are now back from their long reading week break. But as usual, there are still events going on around the campus, like the NU bar. I saw a poster that says, “Shite Night every Tuesday”. 

At this age, we still drink alcohol at lunch, talk about our outfits for the next day, and multitask, such as typing college work while eating a sandwich at the same time. It’s just the vibe of a student on a daily basis. In some cases, students were even walking around with their air pods and sipping their daily coffee casually. Almost everything seems to be normal and serene.

However, as I’m freely walking around, I feel like something is just bugging my brain. I can’t stop thinking about that one day in October. It was the 29th of October, Halloween. That was the night when I was sipping soju, an alcoholic beverage from South Korea while listening to Halloween music.

I’m still thinking about that night, I’m wondering if these students around me also saw the news about the crowd crush that happened in Itaewon. I’m thinking, did it ever cross their minds while sipping coffee or puffing their vapes?

I still cannot believe that it happened, some described it as horrifying. I’d say it’s more than horrifying. They were there for more than 20 minutes or even hours…stuck, trampled and slowly crushed to death. It’s more than words to describe the feeling of being unable to freely walk out of a narrow alleyway.

In a few minutes I’m already set to walk back to where I exactly left my belongings. I think it’s been more than 20 minutes since I left the Mac Lab. I’ve walked and observed everything already, yet that incident is still carved inside my brain. 

This morning, I read an article that South Korean authorities already set the belongings of people found in the crush. Seeing that article broke my heart, I’m here walking back to get my belongings, yet those people involved won’t be able to get theirs back. Why do I feel the survivor’s guilt when I wasn’t even there?

On my way back to our workshop, I intentionally walked slowly so I could hear people talking but the sound of a white van kept beeping and beeping. It was so loud that I could only hear people murmuring. 

However, one conversation made me stop which gave me goosebumps. Two students walked past me, and I heard one of them say, “she bought me a Halloween costume.” After hearing that clearly, I froze. That was chilling to hear since I’ve been thinking about the incident even before I left our house.  Mentioning the Halloween costume made me remember the harrowing images I saw on social media that night. 

I thought it would stop there, but after that I heard sirens from Gardai cars that went past the campus. It was eerie and above that, I could hear subtle chats and laughs of students in the background. At this point, I was wondering if the universe was talking to me.

The sirens made me realise that the people in Itaewon during that night also heard those sounds. It’s traumatic, I still can’t forget the videos I saw. 

While walking back, a man with three kids passed by, the kids were stomping their feet and then one of them shouted “No, stop, stop stomping! You’re so loud!” As soon as I heard that, I walked even faster to get to my lectures. For the whole day I’ve been thinking about the victims, the noise they’ve heard…the incident.

As a student walking freely right now, there is a lot to process. There is no way I can fathom what happened to them in their last moments. In fact, I’m more than devastated, more than heartbroken because this could have been avoided. 

If they had been alive, they could have walked around campus, had daily coffee, would have done college work, and they could have spent Halloween the best way possible.  

For more than 20 minutes, I’ve spent my time freely walking around without my phone, this made me think about the people around my age during the surge. They were only in their 20’s and 30’s. I’m far away from the incident, but I can feel the pain they feel. My heart goes out to everyone. Many people lost their lives in a short span of time. 

If I had the chance to turn back time, I would also give everyone 20 minutes to walk freely.

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