MADRID

“We’re alone,” say parents of Korean student killed in Madrid by falling masonry

Jihyun, 32, died five days before Christmas after being struck on the head by a cornice that was displaced by wind from the regional Culture Department building

The silent protest staged by the Korean student’s parents, Youngsook Han, 60, and Sungwoo Lee, 58.
The silent protest staged by the Korean student’s parents, Youngsook Han, 60, and Sungwoo Lee, 58.Andrea Comas

“My daughter has unmasked the danger of tourism in Madrid,” says a poster held by a friend of Jihyun, 32, a South Korean fashion designer who was killed by a piece of falling masonry in the Spanish capital on December 20, after finishing a Spanish course in Valladolid.

The couple’s harrowing ordeal began at 4.15am on Saturday, December 21, when their phone rang in the South Korean city of Busan

The friend was bearing the banner a week later in a show of solidarity with Jihyun’s parents, Youngsook Han, 60, and Sungwoo Lee, 58, who embarked on a silent protest in the Madrid region’s Culture Department, outside of which the fatal incident took place.

Youngsook Han, an NGO worker, was wearing black sweat pants and a hooded sweatshirt, while Sungwoo Lee, a high school biology teacher, wore a long black coat. Their posters read: “Don’t avoid the responsibility for the tragic death of my daughter,” and: “To all those people who love Madrid and Spain: thank you to everyone who shares our grief, we hope they will always be happy with their families.”

The couple’s harrowing ordeal began at 4.15am on Saturday, December 21, when their phone rang in the South Korean city of Busan. Youngsook Han picked up.

“Your daughter has died in a tragic accident in Madrid,” said the voice on the other end.

This was how Youngsook Han and Sungwood Lee found out that Jihyun had died. After Youngsook Han had hung up, the couple booked the first flights available to Madrid – a trip that took 36 hours with stopovers in Hong Kong and Milan.

“We still haven’t slept at all,” they explain wearily from a sofa in the lobby of their hotel on the outskirts of Madrid. “We are alone now and set adrift by the Madrid authorities. Spanish citizens should feel ashamed by the way we are being treated.”

News of the tragic accident was picked up by the press and social networks at 2.45pm on Friday, December 20. “A Korean women is in a critical condition after a cornice fell on top of her in Alcalá street” read one headline.

Arturo Prins, 47, was close to Jihyun when the masonry struck. “I don’t know how I am still alive,” he says. “I was going to take money out of La Caixa [bank] when pieces of rubble fell close to me and – really bad luck – hit a girl full on. She fell immediately. I helped her as much as I could. I’m still really shaken.”

Two minutes later, four ambulances arrived on the scene. Subsequently, a spokesman for the emergency services explained that Jihyun had gone into respiratory arrest and had severe head injuries. Hours later, she was dead.

Jihyun touched down in Barajas airport in Madrid last May after splitting up with her boyfriend. “I’ll come back with a Spanish man,” she joked to her parents before leaving home. She had been saving for a whole year to study Spanish in Valladolid – the first step toward achieving her goal of becoming a designer for Spanish fashion retailer Zara. “She loved [parent company] Inditex,” her mother explains. “She spent all day sketching.”

When she got to Valladolid, she made friends quickly. “We met at the university,” says Elena Revilla, 33. “She was incredible, very meticulous, upbeat with a contagious laugh. She lived downstairs and I lived up. Not a day went by when she wouldn’t say, ‘Come down. I’ve been cooking’.”

Revilla found out about her friend’s death on a WhatsApp group chat after another friend had been unable to contact her. “Even one of our mothers said that she had read about the tragic accident in the newspaper,” she says. After making numerous calls to hospitals and police departments in the capital, they finally got confirmation of their friend’s death from the South Korean Embassy.

“Jin was a model student,” says Beatriz Pallín, 48, the deceased’s Spanish teacher. “She was polite, respectful, and always showed great interest in Spanish culture and language. She was in a group of five – a group I’ll never forget. I’m certain that every time I look at her desk by the door, I am going to see her.”

Jihyun’s parents have been in Madrid since December 22. They last talked to their daughter on December 13 when she told them that she had finished her course and would be with them and her brother – “a great photographer,” according to Youngsook Han – in South Korea for Christmas Eve. She had even bought tickets to spend New Year in the Philippines with close friends.

“We still don’t understand how my daughter could have died from a storm. Because of bad weather. How is that possible? Why has my daughter died? Why?” asks her father who has called the treatment they have received from Madrid’s regional authorities “pitiful.”

Youngsook Han and Sungwoo Lee were met off their flight in Barajas on Sunday December 22 by three representatives from the South Korean Embassy and two from the regional government in the VIP area of the airport. “The two from the government offered their condolences and left, that was it,” says Youngsook Han.

After the encounter, the couple went to a hotel recommended to them by their Embassy on the outskirts of Madrid.

At 8am the following day, they turned up at the Anatomical Forensic Institute where they had to wait four hours for authorization before they were able to see their daughter’s body.

“Nobody told us how to get this,” says Youngsook Han. “The only thing they said was that she was dead but I wanted to know that it was really my daughter.”

Finally, after the Institute sent a bureau fax to the judge, they were allowed access. “We also asked for a copy of the death certificate but it took hours and hours to get it,” he adds. “We don’t want money, we want an official apology; a detailed explanation of what happened and for the authorities to pay for our daughter’s body to be repatriated – she had insurance but it doesn’t cover everything.”

“The regional government is very concerned about the case,” says a spokesman. “The premier, the culture chief and various Cabinet members have been keeping a close eye on it from day one.”

Eugenio Fontán, a high-profile figure in the regional government, has been in charge of dealing with the family. “It was a freak accident,” he says. “The building has been checked and we could see [the accident] was due to the storm. What else can we do? It’s not in our remit. They are asking for a state funeral, but we don’t do those things. They also want an investigation into what happened and to go up onto the roof to see the building, but we have already told them that job is for the experts. They are also asking for the costs of repatriation to be covered. But we can’t produce a budget for that because the auditors won’t allow it.”

According to a spokesman from the South Korean Embassy, it’s very important that the regional authorities focus on helping the victim’s family. “They know what the family wants. Now they have to act on it,” he says.

Meanwhile, Hyung Min Lee, 47, the vice president of the Korean Residents Association of Madrid, says that “if this had happened in South Korea, it would have been dealt with differently. The way they are being treated is not fair. They need to treat a Korean in the same way as a German or American. They are forgetting that 700,000 Koreans visit Spain every year. It is turning into an embarrassment.”

The day of the accident, Jihyun was walking to the apartment of her Japanese friend Satomi who lived close by. In the hotel where Jihyun had been staying, she left behind a diary that has since been given to her parents. In it, she had written, “Day 20. Visit to the Reina Sofía Museum.”

English version by Heather Galloway.