Like hundreds of thousands of other revelers, 24-year-old Pan Haiqin decided to ring in the new year on Shanghai’s famed riverfront as the skyscrapers flashed and sparkled. But as the crowd grew and then turned into an out-of-control crush of bodies, the real estate professional never made it up steps to a viewing platform to see the dazzling lights.
Nearly 20 hours later, her parents and friends identified her trampled body in a city morgue, one of 36 people killed in one of the deadliest accidents in this showcase Chinese city. Some 49 others were injured.
With authorities identifying 32 dead victims by name, hundreds of family members mourned the lost, who were mostly young women. On social media and TV airwaves, many Chinese were asking how such a tragedy could have happened in the heart of the country’s high-profile financial hub.
“I blame myself for it. I did not protect her,” said Pan’s boyfriend, Zhao Weiwei, his eyes welling up with tears. “She was a cheerful woman who worked so hard in this city.”
Shanghai is known for a better-oiled municipal government than most other Chinese cities, with its leaders supposedly savvier in managing traffic and crowds. But the latest incident has exposed gaping vulnerabilities in the city’s preparedness and emergency response system.
Authorities were still investigating the cause of the stampede late Wednesday night, but street vendors, residents, taxi drivers and other witnesses say the city failed to prepare for the massive turnout Wednesday night. Officials may not have expected such large numbers on riverfront area called the Bund after they cancelled the much-hyped midnight light show and hosted a toned-down version at another location.
Zhao said the crowd descending from the platform crashed into him and his girlfriend and others at the bottom of the steps as they were trying to inch up.
“We were holding hands then, but no way could we resist the force coming down,” he said. “We were separated, and people fell down backward with their faces up, piling on each other. When we were able to pull them out, many were already unconscious.”
Grieving family members and friends say they were kept in the dark on rescue efforts and post-mortem arrangements. They said they had yet to meet or talk with senior city officials. On Friday, many were forced inside a district government compound, with reporters kept out.
“We are basically placed under house arrest,” Cai Jinjin, whose cousin Qi Xiaoyan was killed in the stampede, said before an Associated Press reporter was asked by Shanghai police to leave the compound.
During light shows in previous years, city and military police tightly controlled foot and car traffic on the riverfront. But on Wednesday night, the hundreds of thousands who showed up were allowed mostly to move freely.
“On major holidays, the viewing platform is always restricted – which is known to us all, but this time it was completely open,” said a riverfront resident who declined to give his name for fear of reprisal.
Zhou Jiaming, 21, said he was separated from his girlfriend Li Na in the crush although he tried hugging her close.
“When the people rushed in, she leaned against a wall, and I couldn’t move,” Zhou recalled. “My feet couldn’t touch the ground, and I couldn’t see her after that. When I found her later, she was on the ground and unconscious.”
Police presence was thin at the scene, according to those present.
“There were just three to four police officers at the stairs,” said Li Na’s sister Li Juan. “They couldn’t do anything except shout, ‘Don’t push.’ … Most of the rescue work was done by the tourists and passengers nearby. The police were relaxed on the sidewalks.”
Zhao said he took Pan to the hospital in an ambulance packed with bodies but without any rescue professionals. “She only had underwear on her, and I placed my sweater and jacket onto her and tried to resuscitate her,” he said.
Other family members arrived later – many traveling hours from outside Shanghai – only to be given little or no information about the whereabouts of their loved ones or their conditions, they said.
Pan’s parents weren’t told anything about their daughter’s condition until 8 p.m. Thursday. They were then shown her body in a morgue.
Her father demanded to know more about his daughter’s death. When no senior officials from the municipality showed up to address the relatives, he attempted to block traffic near the district government compound to demand meetings with senior government officials. The police responded by detaining him.
Li Na’s aunt Luo Xiangying said the family went to all four hospitals twice but still couldn’t confirm the woman’s whereabouts. Eventually they were shown photos of her but were not told whether she was still alive or not, although authorities had already announced 35 deaths by that time.
Her father Li Biaojiu dropped to his knees before the municipal government building at 10 p.m. and pleaded for four hours to see her body.
“A woman from the authorities kept telling me I needed to wait and that they needed to communicate with the people in charge, but I wanted to see my daughter,” he said. “Why couldn’t I see her?”
He finally found her body – in a funeral home – at around 2 a.m.
“I couldn’t stand when I saw her body,” he said. “I just wanted to see one more minute of my daughter.”
Associated Press news assistant Fu Ting and video journalist Helene Franchineau contributed to this report.