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January 22, 2015

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Kudos to city for prompt investigation, punitive actions in wake of Bund disaster

NO excuse is probably the best excuse one can give for anything that has gone awry under his or her jurisdiction.

Thirty-six lives perished in a preventable stampede on the Bund during a countdown to the New Year on the night of December 31. Yesterday, following 20 days of intensive investigation, Shanghai punished the key local officials responsible for the fatal stampede. Among the sacked were Party and government heads of Huangpu District, where the stampede took place.

We should take note that it took Shanghai only 20 days to come out with an investigation report that nails down non-diligent and incompetent officials responsible for the tragedy, while the State Council, China’s cabinet, requires a report about a major accident to be finished in 60 days. Certainly our hearts are with the bereaved families, and we wish the report could have been concluded even earlier, but 20 days indeed shows the efficiency of Shanghai investigators.

Shanghai Party Secretary Han Zheng said yesterday that candor must be displayed in facing and dealing with the problems. If all levels of officials in Shanghai were more keenly aware of safety risks and better security measures were in place, Han said, the stampede might well have been averted.

What happened?

A brief recap of the tragic event may help us understand why the punishment meted out to certain officials was timely and proper.

According to the investigation result revealed yesterday at a press conference, a large crowd broke off a one-way picket line on the Bund at 10:37pm on New Year Eve, only to be followed by more massive waves of people squeezing both ways between 11:23pm and 11:33pm. At 11:35pm, people began to fall and the stampede happened haplessly. Police on the spot tried their best to maintain order and save the fallen, but alas, there were not enough police on duty.

Here’s the trick.

During New Year countdowns in three consecutive years before, there were several thousand police to keep order, in contrast to fewer than 700 this year. At the press conference yesterday, it was revealed that Huangpu District was mainly to blame for its dereliction of duty.

On November 13 last year, Huangpu District proposed to the municipal government that this year’s countdown be held on the Bund Origin with pared crowd participation, instead of on the Bund’s scenic spots where previous countdown activities took place.

The municipal government accepted the proposal and asked Huangpu District to be fully responsible for the scaled-down event. But when crowds began to swell faster than expected, Huangpu District officials failed to alert or ask for help from municipal authorities.

What’s more, Huangpu District did not announce the change of countdown venue or the reduced scale of countdown activities until December 30, only one day before the event took place. Nor did Huangpu District conduct a due risk appraisal for any possible gathering of an unexpectedly large crowd on the Bund.

According to the investigation report, foot traffic began to build from 10pm in the scenic spots on the Bund, but Huangpu District police did not report the increasing number of tourists to municipal police authorities every half hour, as requested.

One cannot but recall the World Expo days in 2010, when local police in Shanghai would handle half a million or more visitors a day in good order. And in the previous three years of New Year countdowns, Shanghai police did a good job, as well. Like Shanghai officials, we feel grieved and remorseful about the casualties that took so many young lives.

We hope, as all other conscientious souls hope, that in our pursuit of prosperity and pleasure, safety concerns will never be sidelined or scaled down.


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