Shanghai New Year’s Crush Probe Calls For Sacking of 'Poorly Prepared' Officials

shanghai-stampede-tragedy-mourning-jan6-2015.jpg Family members of victims killed in the New Year's Eve stampede mourn their deaths on the Bund in Shanghai, Jan. 6, 2015.

An official inquiry in Shanghai on Wednesday recommended the sacking of four district-level officials in connection with a fatal New Year's Eve crush and trampling incident that left 36 people dead and dozens injured, three of whom remain in hospital.

A total of 49 people were injured in the disaster, which occurred shortly before midnight on Dec. 31 as crowds gathered on Shanghai's iconic riverfront to welcome in the New Year, prompting the investigation, along with a nationwide review of safety standards.

An 18-year-old university student remains in intensive care in critical condition at the Shanghai No. 1 People's Hospital, while two others are still "in recovery" from their injuries, the official Xinhua News Agency quoted hospital sources as saying.

The municipal government report recommended that Zhou Wei, Communist Party secretary of Shanghai's Huangpu district, Huangpu district government chief Peng Song, Peng's deputy Zhou Zheng and district police chief Chen Qi be dismissed.

The report, which said that its minute-by-minute analysis of the tragedy was based on witness testimony, expert opinion and more than 40 hours of video footage, concluded that the four had "failed" in their assessment of risk, communication with the public, preparation for the event and monitoring.

It said the deaths and injuries had been clustered near a stairway leading to a viewing platform near the intersection with the Nanjing Road shopping district, and that crowds had ignored police directions to use the steps only for going down.

Chen Yi Square

The inquiry found that just seven police officers were present in Chen Yi Square.

"At 10:37 p.m., after the one-way pedestrian traffic zone set aside by police at the...southeast corner of Chen Yi Square was breached, police on duty tried to maintain order, but a large number of people continued to walk in the wrong direction up onto the viewing platform," the report said.

"Between 11:23 p.m. and 11:33 p.m., the two-way flow of people going up and down the ladder to the viewing platform led to their obstructing each other, forming a stalemate, until the pressure of people wishing to descend increased sharply, causing some people near the foot of the ladder to lose their balance and fall to the floor," the report said.

"Their falls caused more people to fall and to be crushed, giving rise to the crush and the stampede incident," it said.

"Police on duty at the scene tried to maintain order and to pull out the people who had been trampled, but they were still being crushed and trampled by people coming down," the report said. "They tried many times to do this but were unsuccessful."

"After this, a group of citizens near the ladder joined hands, and the crowds at the top of the ladder began to retreat, under their direction, and that of the police," it said.

Citizens "formed a wall with their own bodies," making a three-meter wide corridor allowing medics to attend to those who had fallen, it said.

Highly critical

But the report was highly critical of the district authorities' overall handling of the disaster.

District police contributed to the tragedy by failing to conduct a risk assessment for the event, and by sending just over 500 officers to control a tightly packed crowd of several hundred thousand people, the report said.

Huangpu police had also failed to report crowd numbers at Chen Yi Square and the intersection with Nanjing Road to the municipal police command center every 30 minutes, as ordered to do, and at no point called for municipal police reinforcements, it said.

The investigation also found that Zhou and five other officials were sitting down to a sumptuous meal at a luxury restaurant, just minutes before the stampede occurred, in spite of new rules forbidding lavish feasts at taxpayers' expense.

The final decision about the officials' fate will be taken by higher-ranking officials of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

But Shanghai-based lawyer Yuan Gulai said the report had come too late to be regarded as credible.

"The fact that this report is coming out so late, 21 days after the event, is bound to make people wonder if it has undergone a cosmetic touch-up," Yuan said.

He said the report also lays the blame solely at the feet of district-level officials, rather than on the shoulders of the municipality, which reports directly to central government and is a key staging post for career politicians seeking promotion to high office in Beijing.

"Don't our city leaders bear any responsibility for this? Public safety should be a core duty of our government," he said. "[But] we still don't know exactly who bears responsibility for what."

Bearing responsibility

Xiong Xinguang, who directs Shanghai's Emergency Response Center, said "relevant departments," including the city police department, should also bear responsibility for the deaths and injuries on the Bund.

"What this investigation warns us about is that rigid thinking on the part of our leaders and officials is the biggest danger to public safety," Xiong said.

"People who don't put enough effort into their jobs are the biggest threat to public safety in cities," he added.

Vice-mayor Zhou Bo on Wednesday issued a formal apology to the public, the victims of the stampede and their families.

"On behalf of the municipal party committee and the city government, I wish to express the deepest condolences to the families of those who died and were injured, as well as the deepest apologies," Zhou said.

"I would also like to express the deepest remorse to all the citizens of Shanghai," he said.

Shanghai resident and long-term petitioner Zhou Xuezhen said the report seemed designed to stave off a tide of public anger over the authorities' handling of the Bund incident.

"This [New Year's Eve] light show was organized by the municipal government, so how come such a stampede happened in Shanghai, and so many people died?" she said.

"I want to know exactly how they will be punished, and what they are going to do about it."

Candle emoticons

On popular social media sites, some netizens sent candle emoticons for the victims, while others blamed those present in the crowd.

"Why is it that everything is blamed on the government, when the behavior of some people who don't do as they are told by police...goes totally unnoticed?" wrote user @guanaigongzhichengzhangxiehui on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo.

Meanwhile, @dachoupiqida commented: "The first thing they do after this accident happens is deflect mass public anger onto a few insignificant people."

"That way, those who bear true responsibility are able to evade it...and by the time the real facts emerge, nobody will care anymore."

Independent writer Gong Lei said that those investigating were unlikely to be concerned with "the real facts," and more concerned with how to apportion blame.

"This investigation wasn't scientific or objective, and didn't look for the causes of the incident; it was all about some extremely selfish people trying to hold onto their jobs," he said."It shows an extreme lack of responsibility to the public."

Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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