Anger Sparks Railways Probe

Relatives of victims condemn the Chinese government's response to a train crash.

2011-07-26
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The wreckage of a high-speed train carriage is carried on a truck in Shuangyu, Zhejiang, July 26, 2011.
AFP

The relatives of those who died in Saturday's bullet-train crash in the eastern province of Zhejiang criticized official handling of the tragedy on Tuesday, as the death toll reached 39 and the government promised a full safety review of China's high-speed railways.

The relative of a father and son who died in the crash surnamed Su said the authorities had sent a team to the crash site to work out compensation for those who had lost loved ones.

"We had two [who died], a father and a son," Su said.

"They said that the same compensation would be paid for everyone, and they told us that one person had already accepted their offer," he added.

But he said the authorities were keeping the parents of victims apart as much as possible, and had warned them not to discuss their compensation arrangements with others in the same position.

"They have kept us all apart and they say it has to be negotiated 'one-on-one,'" Su said. "They won't let us come to a collective agreement."

Formal notification

As the relatives of those involved in the crash desperately posted missing person notices online, the authorities began issuing formal notifications to families whose loved ones had died.

A relative of Zhuo Huang, one of those who died, said they had received their notification on Monday.

"He died. He is dead already," the relative said. "He was 39 years old. They haven't sorted out the compensation yet."

But Su said the compensation wasn't the only thing troubling the relatives. "The person is already dead; what use is money going to be?" he asked.

"The important thing is really the reason behind the crash. They have to give us a clear answer about this."

"You can't just let something like this happen again and give out some money, and that's the end of it," Su said.

Response lacking

Shaoxing-based Yang Feng, who arrived at the scene three hours after the crash in search of his pregnant wife Chen Bihuai and a number of other relatives, said many people had died from lack of prompt medical attention.

"I climbed up there and saw my wife there below ... why didn't they come and save us?"

Yang, whose wife and relatives were later reported dead, said there was no obvious rescue activity going on when he arrived.

"Why didn't they save us? Why did they say that people were already dead," Yang said.

"Even if they had been dead, they should still have taken the bodies out of the train."

The discovery of an injured two-year-old girl 20 hours after the crash, and allegations made based on shared video footage that there were signs of life and unburied bodies aboard the wrecked coaches after the rescue operation ended, have prompted widespread anger at what many say was a callous and inhumane operation.

But one relative surnamed Li said he had met with officials on Tuesday.

"Actually their attitude seemed pretty sincere," he said. "They said they would do everything they could to consult with us, and to empathize with the mood of bereaved relatives."

"They told us to talk to them if we had anything we needed to say."

According to an online survey by ifeng.com, more than 50 percent of respondents said the site of the accident was cleared too quickly, which could make it difficult to properly investigate the cause of the accident.

And more than 54 percent of 251,000 people polled said they would not take high-speed trains, at least in the short term.

Media limited

Official media was strictly limited in the scope of what it could report around the crash.

In a regular directive sent to news editors setting out the guidelines for coverage of major stories, the Communist Party's powerful central propaganda department set the angle to be adopted in covering the crash.

"The major theme for the Wenzhou bullet train case from now on will be known as 'in the face of great tragedy, there's great love,'" the department said.

Guangxi-based writer Xing Chu said the government's media control strategy for major events was to blame.

"They are not giving the public a clear and objective account of what happened," Xing said, calling the move "anti-humanity."

"They just want to muzzle people's freedom of expression."

Disregard for life

Railways minister Sheng Guangzu apologized for the wreck, which occurred at 11:00 p.m. on Saturday as the D301 bullet train with 558 passengers on board slammed into the 16-coach D3115, which had come to a halt with 1,072 people on board following a lightning-induced power failure.

The D3115, ironically named "Harmony" after the government's policy of preventing social unrest through "harmonizing" the media, was sitting stationary on a flyover when it was hit, and some cars were shunted off into the fields below.

Sheng has ordered a two-month safety review of railway operations nationwide following the crash, which was the worst to hit China since 2008, state media said on Tuesday.

Beijing on Sunday fired three middle-level railway officials as the investigation into the causes of the crash began.

Beijing University of Science and Technology professor Hu Xingdou said the accident showed a relative disregard for human life on the part of some government departments.

"They were in too much of a hurry to call off the search for survivors," Hu said. "In developed countries, the search for survivors would go on for at least three days."

"They wanted to get trains running along that track as soon as possible," he said, by way of explanation. "Before we understand the reason for the crash, they should halt operation of any high-speed trains."
 
Reported by Qiao Long and He Ping for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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