China school stampede kills 8 in crowded stairway

AP News
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Posted: Dec 08, 2009 12:26 PM

It was raining hard, and the hundreds of children leaving their evening classes raced down the narrow stairway closest to their dormitory. Somehow, someone stumbled _ and the ensuing crush of bodies left eight children dead.

Television footage showed a small pool of blood on one of the landings of the five-story building shortly after Monday night's stampede, which raised new concerns about safety in China's pressure-cooker education system. One student told state media that the tangle of people reached as high as the third floor.

By Tuesday morning, students again were using the stairs again as classes resumed after a moment of silence, China Central Television reported.

The stampede in Xiangxiang city, Hunan province, once again exposed how China's schools are packed with students but are built with little thought for their safety.

The private Yucai Middle School had been considered one of the city's best.

More than 400 students were rushing out of Monday's evening study session when some lost their footing in the 4-foot-wide (1.2-meter-wide) stairwell, CCTV said. Xinhua said the building had four exits, but most students were taking the closest stairway to their living quarters because of the heavy rain.

Seven boys and one girl, aged 11 to 14, were killed. Eight had serious injuries.

One student told the state-run Xinhua News Agency that two boys had intentionally blocked students near the bottom of the stairwell.

"Someone shouted at them, and they let us through, but they played the trick again at the staircase leading to the first floor, and someone stumbled," the report quoted the unidentified student as saying.

The stampede was among the deadliest crushes in a school since 2002, when 21 middle school students in northern China died after a railing collapsed as hundreds of students funneled down a darkened staircase after evening classes.

Evening sessions are considered essential if a student wants to advance in China's competitive education system, where it is necessary to pass a test to enter high school.

The local government in Xiangxiang, 720 miles (1,160 kilometers) south of Beijing, said the city education bureau chief had been fired over his "leadership responsibility" for Monday's accident, while the school's principal and chairman were detained as part of an investigation.

Phone calls to the school's administrative offices rang unanswered Tuesday.

Yang Fengchun, a professor at the prestigious Peking University's School of Government, said Yucai's staff bore direct responsibility for lacking safety awareness, while the local government failed in its oversight role.

Such incidents often stir anti-government sentiment, and Yang said the speedy resumption of classes Tuesday may be aimed at preventing protests.

Widespread parent protests followed the devastating May 2008 earthquake in southwestern Sichuan province, in which at least 5,335 students attending class were among the nearly 90,000 killed or missing.

Critics said the schools that collapsed in the quake and crushed students were poorly built and lacked exits to allow students to evacuate quickly.

Middle school teacher and blogger Zhang Xiaojun said Monday's stampede again showed how campus safety ran a distant second to academic achievement.

"The school's end-all, be-all is quality of education, which is to say, exam scores. Teachers and students consider scores as something as important as life itself and everything else is secondary," wrote Zhang, who teaches in the western province of Gansu.

Stampedes could easily be prevented by assigning teachers to monitor halls and stairways, he wrote. "No matter how naughty the children, nothing like this (accident) would happen."