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Shanghai New Year stampede causes heavy casualties

Updated: Jan 2,2015 10:27 AM     Xinhua

A man mourns people killed in a fatal New Year’s Eve stampede near the accident site in Shanghai on Jan 1. [Photo/Xinhua]

SHANGHAI — At least 36 people died in a fatal stampede during New Year celebrations late Dec 31 in Shanghai, according to local authorities as of the night of Jan 1.

Seven of the injured have checked out of the hospital. Among the 40 remaining in treatment, 13 are seriously injured, the municipal government said.

The tragedy happened at a crowded square in Shanghai’s gleaming Bund area at around 11:35 p.m. Most of the injured were young people in their twenties, a majority of them women. There were also college students and children, medical sources told Xinhua.

According to the Taiwan affairs office of Shanghai, Jou Yi’an, about 23 years old from Taichung City, died in the stampede. She visited the mainland for the first time. Another person from Taiwan was injured and is receiving hospital treatment.

Local authorities confirmed to Xinhua that one of the victims was a female student from the Shanghai-based Fudan University, one of China’s most prestigious universities. The student, surnamed Du from Yunnan province, was fatally injured during the incident and died later in the hospital.

Police are investigating the cause of the stampede. The municipal government set up a working team for rescue operations and to deal with the aftermath.

A large number of police can be seen at road intersections close to the Bund on the evening of Jan 1. The nearest subway station to the Bund was closed for safety reasons, according to a notice posted out of the station.

The Bund, a stretch of riverbank on the west side of the Huangpu River in Shanghai, is a popular destination for New Year celebrations, with its historic architecture and skyscrapers along the river displaying dazzling light shows at night.

On the morning of Jan 1, many residents and tourists came to Chen Yi Square with flowers to mourn the victims.

Hellish scene

Survivors described the stampede as “horrific and hellish”.

Some said they were standing on the steps adjoining the major road and the sightseeing platform when the deadly incident happened.

“The steps leading to the platform were full of people. Some wanted to get down and some wanted to go up,” said a witness who gave her surname as Yin. “We were caught in the middle and saw some girls falling while screaming. Then people started to fall down, row by row.”

The woman said she covered two children in front of her with her arms in the chaos. Her son followed her.

“When we brought him out of the crowd, his forehead was bruised, he had two deep creased scars on his neck, and his mouth and nose were bleeding,” said the mother.

Dirty shoe prints covered her son’s clothes when the 12-year-old boy reached safety.

“The crowd was in a panic. We stood in the crowd, feeling squeezed and almost out of breath,” said another witness surnamed Yu. “Some yelled for help, but the noise was too loud.”

Other survivors said police rushed to the scene and tried to pull out people who were stuck, but without much success.

“The chaos lasted several minutes, then some of the injured were seen being carried out of the crowd,” Yu said.

Local authorities told Xinhua that there were no New Year celebration activities officially organized on the night of Dec 31. The relevant government departments canceled this year’s New Year light show on the Bund scheduled on the night of Jan 1, since shows held in previous years have drawn huge flows of people, causing safety hazards.

Some survivors said the stampede was triggered when some people started to throw coupons resembling US bank notes to revelers outside a bar on the windy night.

Witness Wu Tao said some coupons were being thrown from a building’s third-floor window near the Bund, and people standing along the river bank started to scramble for the coupons.

The coupons had “M18” printed in the center, believed to refer to a bar bearing the same name on the Bund.

Xinhua tried to reach M18, but phone calls to the bar were immediately hung up after being answered.

The official microblog of the Shanghai police said on the night of Jan 1 that the coupons were dropped at about 11:47 p.m., after the stampede happened, according to surveillance video.

A man walks past the bund area with a bouquet in his hand in Shanghai on Jan 1.[Photo/Xinhua]

Police response

A news release was organized by the Huangpu branch of the Shanghai Public Security Bureau on the afternoon of Jan 1. Three police officers on patrol on New Year’s Eve attended the conference to explain what happened at the Bund and the police response.

Deputy commander of the branch Cai Lixin said the road became increasingly packed after 8 p.m. on the night of Dec 31.

The police expressed regret over their failure to effectively intervene when the tourist flow “increased irregularly” at 11:30 p.m.

Around 500 police were mobilized after a surveillance camera showed that a passageway near Chen Yi Square became congested with people after 11:30 p.m., Cai said.

Given the overwhelmingly large crowd, the police cut through forcibly to enter the heart of the crowd and found some people had “physical discomfort,” he said.

A dozen police officers helped evacuate the injured from the crowd after the stampede and cleared a passage for ambulances to get through, said Wang Qiang, another policeman.

Immediate probe

President Xi Jinping on Jan 1 demanded an immediate investigation into the cause of the stampede and urged prevention of such incidents in the future.

Xi asked the Shanghai government to “go all out” to rescue and treat the injured and properly handle the aftermath.

A profound lesson should be learned from the incident, said Xi.

Premier Li Keqiang underscored the importance of safety in public places, particularly during holidays.

Li told local authorities to “make every effort” to reduce injury-related deaths and console relatives, adding that strict precautions should be taken against major incidents, and public safety and social stability should be ensured.

In China, the world’s most populous country, stampedes have mainly been due to safety loopholes.

In September 2014, six students were killed in a stampede at a primary school in Yunnan province after a stairway was blocked. In January 2014, a mosque stampede killed 14 people and injured another 10 in northwest China’s Ningxia Hui autonomous region. In 2004, a stampede on a bridge in suburban Beijing killed 37 during a lantern festival.

Lack of awareness over safety risk behind public gatherings and loose control at the scene contributed to the tragedy, said Liu Tiemin, former head of the China Academy of Safety Science and Technology.

“The Bund’ s viewing platform is long and narrow and the step structure of the Chen Yi Square makes it hard for crowds to flow,” said Teng Wuxiao, director of the public safety research center with Fudan University.

The disorder at the scene also exposed the deficiency in emergency exercise and safety education, said Teng.

“For those areas with high safety risks, the authorities should have special emergency response plans and make sufficient analysis and assessment, including the arrangement of police, volunteers and supporting measures, “ said Teng.

The emergency response plan must be tested with simulated exercises and even practices, he added.

For megacities like Shanghai, the government should set up a permanent safety management department to coordinate operations of all safety-concerned departments and ensure safety measures put in place, said Teng.

Liu Shilin, head of the academy of urban science with the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, suggested that when the influx of tourists exceeds the ceiling, one person per square meter indoors and four people for every three square meters outdoors, the authorities should temporarily shut down scenic areas, exhibition centers and evacuate the people.

Liu said information technology can be used to detect the population density and make timely warnings through social media platforms, including Sina Weibo and WeChat.