The Shanghai government has fired four local officials for failing to prevent a stampede that killed three dozen people on New Year's Eve. Those who lost their jobs include Shanghai's Huangpu district Communist Party chief, its director and its top two police officials.
Investigators say that as huge crowds packed the riverfront in the Huangpu district, district party Chief Zhou Wei and other officials were busy enjoying a banquet at an opulent Japanese restaurant nearby.
"We are extremely pained, guilty, and we blame ourselves," Shanghai's vice-mayor, Zhou Bo, said at a news conference here today.
Investigators described a series of blunders that led to the crush, which also injured 49 people. District officials had cancelled a popular New Year's Eve light show, but only announced the change the day before and in a way that only confused people. Then police deployed far too few officers.
"It happened at Shanghai's important landmark — the Bund," Zhou said. "The party and people gave such an important city to us to manage. We should use all our efforts, hearts and energy to protect citizen's lives and property."
The Bund is Shanghai's colonial-era waterfront. It sits across from a stretch of futuristic skyscrapers that is often featured in Hollywood movies, such as the James Bond film Skyfall and Mission Impossible II.
The stampede shocked people, in part because it happened in Shanghai, generally considered mainland China's most modern and efficient mega-city. To put it in American terms, the incident would be the equivalent of losing 36 New Year's Eve revelers in New York's Times Square.
According to witnesses, the stampede occurred around 11:30 p.m. local time as people surged up a staircase to the riverfront promenade to see a light show they didn't know had been canceled, while another crowd tried to push down the same staircase. Lu Zhenyu, who works for a sports company, says he was caught in the middle and nearly crushed to death.
"I saw with my own eyes a girl in front of me who was shouting,
'Stop pushing! Stop moving!' " Lu said in a recent interview at a Shanghai coffeehouse. "Later, she became completely motionless. She appeared to have stopped breathing."
Lu, 26, said there were few police around.
People screamed and cursed, and the air filled with the smells of sweat and vomit. After 10 minutes, Lu said, someone in the scrum yelled that someone had died. The crush subsided, revealing dozens of people lying on the ground, some bleeding from the mouth and nose.
"There was a girl whose face was trampled," Lu recalled. "Her entire face was beyond recognition, though she was still able to stand. There were scars all over her face as if she'd been beaten up. You couldn't tell her eyes from her scars. She looked like a monster."
Lu says the girl survived.
Many victims' family members have been holed up in local hotels, waiting for answers and compensation. Shanghai officials have told them not to talk to the news media, but one, surnamed Wu, did so today. He said he was disappointed with the results of the news conference.
"Did they give any details? No!" Wu said in a phone interview. "Actual questions, including compensation to victims' families? Nothing has been discussed."
Late today, the Huangpu district government announced that it would pay about $13,000 in compensation for each victim. Update at 10:52 a.m. ET
Among the dead on New Year's Eve was Li Xiang, the 26-year-old son of a banana farmer from South China's Fujian province. Li graduated from Xiamen University, one of the country's finest, and moved to this city of more than 24 million people a couple of years ago to work in the paper pulp business. His cousin, also named Li, said Shanghai hasn't lived up to its reputation.
"The speed with which they handled this has been too slow and too inefficient," the cousin said, sitting in a grungy Shanghai hotel room while the deceased's mother sobbed beneath an olive-colored comforter. "Shanghai is an international metropolis, but the way they've managed this is even slower than our local government."