China winter chaos sparks railway stampede

Other News Materials 3 February 2008 11:03 (UTC +04:00)

( Reuters ) - A stampede at Guangzhou railway station killed one person when frustrated passengers rushed to board trains after days of cancellations because of fierce cold and snow, police confirmed on Sunday.

Officials warned people to stay away from railway stations because service was recovering only slowly and was further strained as trains were commandeered to deliver emergency supplies to areas of the country battered by the worst winter weather in 50 years.

The crush at Guangzhou station, which had been besieged by 260,000 people, killed a migrant worker hoping to get home to celebrate the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar, the Lunar New Year.

Authorities said it was the first stampede death of the weather crisis that has killed more than 60, mainly in road accidents.

"When the crowd surged in, people who dropped things didn't dare to stop and pick them up," said Li Liujie, a factory worker who took a train Guangzhou on Friday, the day of the accident.

"It was just too many people. There was nothing the police could do about it," Li said.

Experts forecast the freak winter could continue past Chinese New Year, which will be celebrated mid-week, and said the cold and storms in areas unaccustomed to such weather was the country's worst natural disaster in decades.

Emergency crews were still struggling to restore power to parts of southern China blacked out for a week.

Mobilizing the might of the state, China has deployed more than 300,000 troops and nearly 1.1 million militia and army reservists to get traffic moving and ensure power supplies, Xinhua reported.

In Chenzhou, a city of 4 million in the southern province of Hunan, which has been without electricity for nine days, shopkeepers huddled under blankets while cooks warmed their hands over their woks.

At least the snow had stopped falling there by late Saturday afternoon.

Authorities in Guangzhou said their priority was to clear the backlog of thousands still waiting at the railway station, having cajoled millions more migrant workers to stay put and skip what for many is their only chance each year to visit family.

"The railways can't go beyond their capacity to meet everyone's need," Wang Yongping, Ministry of Railways spokesman, was reported as saying by Xinhua. "We have to say sorry to those who couldn't get tickets."

Passengers at the station said police and soldiers added more layers of cordons on Sunday to hold the swarming crowds back. The security force at the station numbers 12,000, Xinhua reported.

Man Xifeng, a 21-year-old factory worker, counted himself lucky to make it inside after waiting two days.

"It is very sad and scary because there are so many people waiting to go home," he said.

The blizzards have created China's worst-ever power crisis after toppled power lines and icy rails crippled the rail network, holding up thousands of coal trains.

Miners are now working overtime and, as the railways creak back to life, coal shipments are being given priority, reducing crowded passenger trains to a crawl.

The government has put the immediate economic losses of the weather chaos at $7.5 billion. It says that 223,000 houses have been toppled by snow or ice and 862,000 damaged.

As much as 21 cm (7 inches) of snow covered Shanghai, the financial capital, closing its bustling port on Saturday and stranding more than a thousand ships. Beijing was cold but clear.