Georgia Dad Mourns Son with 'Bright Future' Who Died in South Korea Crowd Surge: 'The World's a Darker Place'

Steven Blesi, US college students among more than 150 killed in Halloween stampede in South Korea
Steven Blesi, US college students among more than 150 killed in Halloween stampede in South Korea

Courtesy of Steve Blesi

The father of an American college student, who died Saturday during a crowd surge in South Korea, is remembering his son as a "smart" young man with "an incredibly bright future."

Steven Blesi, 20, of Marietta, Ga., was studying abroad in the country when he was killed in the incident over the weekend, his dad Steve Blesi confirms to PEOPLE.

Officials say at least 153 others, including a second American student, died after they were caught in the crush of people who were out celebrating Halloween in the Itaewon section of Seoul, according to The New York Times and CNN.

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The grieving father tells PEOPLE that his son had "an adventurous spirit" and "could have done anything he wanted in this world."

"The world's a darker place without him in it," says Steve, a retired IT director.

Steve first confirmed his son was one of the victims of Saturday's crowd surge in an interview with The Washington Post.

Steven Blesi, US college students among more than 150 killed in Halloween stampede in South Korea
Steven Blesi, US college students among more than 150 killed in Halloween stampede in South Korea

Courtesy of Steve Blesi

Anne Gieske, a junior nursing student at University of Kentucky, was also studying abroad in Seoul this fall when she was killed in the crush, according to a statement from university president Eli Capilouto.

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Steven grew up in Marietta, where his family still lives, but was a junior at Kennesaw State University, studying international business.

In a statement shared Sunday, the school said Steven "was one of 11 students from KSU in South Korea as part of a study abroad program." The remaining 10 students have been "reported safe," according to the university.

Steve tells PEOPLE he was initially "hesitant" to let his son study abroad, but after the COVID-19 pandemic postponed his plans for two years, Steven finally had the chance to go this year.

Before his son left, Steve says he gave him a pep talk, telling him to "be careful" and "realize how precious life is."

"I told him, 'Look Steven, I can't protect you there. I can't. I can't come to your aid quickly,' " Steve recalls.

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On Saturday, Steve was returning home from grocery shopping when his brother informed him of the terrible news from South Korea, he tells PEOPLE. Steven's family "immediately" attempted to contact him via WhatsApp, but received no response.

After about two-and-a-half hours, Steve says a police officer answered his son's phone. Later that evening, an official at the U.S. Embassy in South Korea informed the family that Steven had died in the incident.

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"I can't imagine the pain he went through," Steve tells PEOPLE. "And if I could put myself in his place, I'd do it a hundred times over."

He later added, "I can't hug him one last time. I can't kiss my boy. I can't hear his voice."

Steven Blesi, US college students among more than 150 killed in Halloween stampede in South Korea
Steven Blesi, US college students among more than 150 killed in Halloween stampede in South Korea

Courtesy of Steve Blesi

Local officials are facing public criticism following the deadly event, according to USA Today, which reports only 137 police officers were assigned to Saturday's event.

NBC News reports that more than 100,000 people were out in the popular nightlife district to enjoy festivities at the first large Halloween gathering since the pandemic.

Choi Sukjae, chief spokesperson of the Korean Emergency Medical Association, said pedestrians were assisting emergency responders — who were delayed in reaching victims because of the crowd — by performing CPR on those caught in the crush, according to USA Today's report.

In a national address, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol called it "a disaster that should never happen," and ordered an emergency review, per NBC News.

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Steve tells PEOPLE he has "a tremendous amount of anger" regarding police's efforts to control the crowd and does not understand how more wasn't done "to prevent this type of tragedy" from unfolding.

South Korea's national police apologized on Monday, according to ABC News.

"It was foreseen that a large number of people would gather there," said Hong Ki-hyun, chief of the National Police Agency's Public Order Management Bureau.

Police, he added, "didn't expect that large scale casualties" would result from the event.