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China blames speeding for train crash that killed 70 people

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

ZIBO, China -- China could identify less than half the 70 people killed in its deadliest train accident in a decade but had already cleared the mangled cars and laid new track Tuesday, restoring service a day after the collision.

Hundreds of orange-jacketed workers were mobilized at the crash site, working through the night to clear and repair the fractured line linking Beijing to the seaside city of Qingdao -- site of the sailing competition during the upcoming Olympics.

The official Xinhua News Agency cited an investigative panel set up by the State Council, China's Cabinet, as saying that speeding was to blame for Monday's crash.

Officials bracing for a May Day surge in rail traffic and keen to show their crisis management skills ahead of the Summer Games appeared firmly in command. They sacked a third railway official while trumpeting their success in caring for 416 injured people.

Reinforcing its message that all victims were being well cared for, state media released a set of photos that showed a cheerful French survivor, Pascal Boisson, receiving fresh flowers. A beaming nurse fed him with chopsticks as he reclined in his hospital bed.

The Zibo Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital "allocated special staff members to take care of him and cook for him Chinese dishes he likes," the caption said.

Twenty-six of those killed had been identified by late Tuesday, Xinhua reported, citing information from news portal sina.com. They reportedly included two university students studying in Beijing, a police officer on duty on the train and a reporter with the Zibo television station.

To maintain its tight control over media coverage of the accident, authorities repeatedly blocked foreign journalists from speaking to survivors.

The crash occurred in eastern China's Shandong province as a train sped toward Qingdao. Moving at 81 mph before the accident -- well over the section's speed limit of 50 mph -- the train jumped its tracks and collided with an oncoming train on another track, Xinhua said, citing the government's investigation panel.

Nine carriages from the first train tumbled into a dirt ditch next to a farm field in Zibo. The second train stayed upright but was knocked askew on the tracks.

By Tuesday morning, little more than 24 hours after the deadly collision, a crane lifted the last remaining carriage at the scene onto a flatbed truck while trains chugged by slowly on the newly repaired track.

Those injured in the crash were at hospitals throughout the region. They included 70 people in critical condition as well as four French nationals -- Boisson, his two children and his girlfriend -- who were being flown to Beijing on a flight arranged by the French Embassy, Xinhua reported.

Local officials in Zibo held a news conference Tuesday where they gave a glowing evaluation of the emergency response, praising rescuers who rushed to the accident site and a doctor who worked more than 30 hours without rest.

The central and provincial governments "do not need to worry and the victims, their families and people from all walks of life are satisfied," said Liu Xinsheng, deputy secretary-general of the Zibo city government.

Liu and other officials refused to take questions, and did not provide any new information on the cause of the crash.

One survivor said the crash was over in one or two minutes, and that she was forced to crawl out of a window of her sleeper compartment.

"People who were sleeping, they got crushed to death and wouldn't even know it," said the middle-aged woman at Zibo Central Hospital, who had layers of gauze wrapped around her curly permed hair. She refused to give her name because she said her relatives didn't know she had been hurt.

Other independent accounts of the crash were difficult to obtain. Police officers and uniformed security were posted outside some hospital rooms and wards, preventing reporters from entering. Several survivors seemed afraid to talk, saying they would not agree to interviews unless doctors approved.

Two doctors at the Zibo No. 1 Hospital -- including one puffing on a cigarette at the nurse's station -- said a reporter would have to get permission from a hospital director to speak with any patient. They added that the director was in a meeting and unreachable.

Blocking foreign journalists is standard practice for Chinese officials, who fear outside reports will not jibe with the government's message.

Xinhua announced late Tuesday that a deputy director of the railway bureau in Jinan, the provincial capital and the nearest major city, had been dismissed. Guo Jiguang's firing follows the dismissals of the bureau's director and Communist Party secretary. All three could face investigations by the Ministry of Railways.

Trains are the most popular way to travel in China, and the overloaded rail network carried 1.36 billion passengers last year. Accidents are rare, and the government is trying to extend and upgrade the state-run network and introduce more high-speed trains.

Monday's accident was the worst train crash in China since 1997, when a collision killed 126 people.


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