Blesi was only halfway through the semester when, his family said, he was one of more than 150 people killed when a Halloween celebration in Seoul was packed so tightly that many could not breathe. He was 20 years old.
“He was an outsider, he was full of adventure,” said his father, Steve Blesi, in an interview with the Washington Post. “And this was his first big adventure.”
At least two Americans died in Saturday’s devastating crowd surge, according to the US Embassy in Seoul. The State Department declined to name the two, but Blesi was the first to be publicly identified when his family shared information about his death on social media and with news outlets. Later Sunday, the University of Kentucky announced that Anne Gieske, a junior nursing student studying abroad, had died.
The younger of two brothers who were also best friends, Blesi was remembered as a big-hearted, happy-go-lucky person, quick to get along with others. His adventurous spirit was evident even in childhood, his father said. “You know, you walk into a store, you’d have to put a leash on him because he’d just run.”
This is what causes crowd pressures like the deadly one in Seoul
He loved basketball and his pets – a gecko, turtles and hermit crabs. He became an Eagle Scout like his brother, Joey, who is about a year older, and went to college with hopes of working in international business.
While in South Korea, he kept in touch with his family via WhatsApp, sending photos and videos of his travels. One video sent from Jeju Island opened with, “Hey Mom, hey Dad, hey Joey,” as Steven laughed and cried before showing the waves in front of him. This weekend, he sent a message to his dad, saying that his midterms were over and he was having fun with his friends.
“I just said, ‘Listen, be safe. I love you,’” said Steve Blesi. “And that was the last text between us.”
He and his wife had just returned home from grocery shopping on Saturday when his brother blurted out: Did they see what happened in Seoul? Was Steven all right?
They tried to contact their son, Steve Blesi said, “calling and calling and calling and calling with no answer at all times.” That, he said, “scared the hell out of us.” A police officer eventually picked up, saying that the cell phone had been found and recovered from the Itaewon area, where the deadly mobbing took place.
Over several agonizing hours, the Blesis called the US Embassy and made contacts in the study abroad program. They posted their son’s photo on Twitter. They talked to his friends and found out that he was among those who decided to stay in the crowd when others left.
They hoped he might be in hospital. Instead, they received a call confirming the worst.
“I never thought something like this would happen,” said Steve Blesi. “I don’t understand how they didn’t have crowd control. I don’t even know how it happened.”
He spoke to The Post by phone Sunday on the way back from picking up his older son, who was in college in Alabama. When he came home, he said, he and his wife “are going to hug his chest, keep him with us, do our best to take care of him.”
They are making arrangements for Blesi’s remains to be returned to the United States, where “he will be with us from here until the day we die.”
The father described his family as “broken”. People close to his son were reaching out to tell him how wonderful he was, he said, and “you love them for it, but it doesn’t take away the pain, and I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
He continued, “It’s going to be very difficult to live with this for the rest of our lives.” His days would begin and end now, he said, with the same terrible thought: “One of our boys is no longer with us.”
He was second-guessing the decision to let his son study on the other side of the world, even as he tried to remind himself that accidents can happen anywhere. Even he knew his son was so eager to go.
“I said, ‘I can’t protect you over there,'” Steve Blesi said. “And that those words will be true…”
Bryan Pietsch and Grace Moon contributed to this report.