Giving voice to a nation's rage

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am


As families of the victims of the Wenzhou high-speed rail disaster began to come to terms with their shock and grief a week ago, one widower's intense fury and thirst for justice became a focal point for all their unanswered questions.

Yang Feng, 32, first came under the spotlight in a series of dramatic, rage-fuelled interviews given at the city morgue moments after he identified his wife's remains on Monday morning.

'Why has it taken so long - more than 30 hours?' he yelled, jabbing his finger at the nearest camera lens. 'Nobody speaks to us, nobody gives us any information. We have to find everything out for ourselves. We deserve a proper explanation from the Ministry of Railways.'

By that evening, he had gathered a handful of other bereaved families around him and entered negotiations with mortuary officials.

One of the key points of concern - though far from the only one - was that official policy dictated that once families signed for the dead, the bodies needed to be cremated on-site. Many local victims came from devoutly Christian families - the area around Wenzhou is a stronghold for the religion - and they were determined to bring their loved ones home for church memorials.

Dressed in a rough cotton mourning robe and white headscarf, Yang realised the discussions were going nowhere after almost two hours, and the band set off for the city government headquarters to stage a protest.

ang's tale is one of the most heart-wrenching personal tragedies in the disaster.

The accident robbed his family of 'four bodies but five lives' - not just his 30-year-old wife, Chen Bi, but also his sister-in-law Chen Xi, four-year old nephew Zhou Rente, mother-in-law Wen Aiping and the unborn child Chen Bi had been carrying for seven months. They had been returning to Wenzhou after a visit to a new flat Yang was renovating in his hometown of Shaoxing, near Hangzhou.

The family had been in the rear carriage, numbered 16, of a train travelling from Hangzhou to Fuzhou, which was travelling at a snail's pace at the time of the accident. When the following train, travelling from Beijing to Fuzhou, ploughed into it, the carriage the family was in was crushed beneath four others that rode over the top of it before they plunged over the side of a viaduct.

Yang said he arrived at the site shortly after 2am, having driven with a friend through the rain-soaked night to get there, but was shocked to discover the search for survivors had already been called off.

'There were lots of paramilitary police,' he said, 'but they were all lined up waiting to listen to a speech from some political leader or other. They told me there were no signs of life, so they had given up the search. Even if no one was alive, I said there could still be bodies in there.

'The Railways Ministry didn't care about that. It only seemed interested in clearing and reopening the rail line,' Yang said.

Last Sunday afternoon, Yang discovered that his father-in-law, Chen Daodi, had survived and was in hospital. Chen, 52, had stood up to stretch his legs moments before the crash, and that had saved his life.

Having exhausted his search of hospitals for other family members, Yang returned to the crash site. 'My friend and I managed to break into the crash site and find carriage 16,' he said. 'We had to beg the rescue workers to start looking again to see if they could find my wife and her family, even if it was just their bodies.'

Two-and-a-half-year-old Xiang Weiyi was later found alive in the carriage, 21 hours after the crash. Hours later still, the bodies of Yang's family were finally recovered.

Yang's fury and seeming lack of fear of authority were infectious, empowering other people to speak out.

At one point during the Monday night protest, he was firing up the crowd to march on the Wenzhou Shangri-La hotel, where top officials from Beijing and Shanghai were rumoured to be staying. When the new head of the Shanghai Railways Bureau failed to appear as promised, Yang got the crowd to block traffic.

But his time at centre stage as an activist and ringleader was short-lived. Yang denies his silence has been bought. 'I just need to focus on settling my family affairs and looking after my father-in-law,' he said. 'I still want to find out the truth.'