Answers sought on subway death
A few onlookers took photos and comforted the 48-year-old mother of a woman whose son died last year in a fall from the platform of Beijing's Gulou Dajie subway station.
On the dusty edge of the platform, Meng Chaohong and her family held large photos of Ma Yue, who died a year ago last Tuesday.
Ma, a Southwest Jiaotong University student, fell to his death at 10.47pm while waiting for the last train of the day. He died of 'abrupt termination of breath and heartbeat from a high-pressure electric shock', traffic police told the family.
In the 12 months since she received the worst phone call of her life, Meng says she is no closer to knowing any more than that. She wants to know how her son died but cannot get access to surveillance-camera recordings of activity on the platform that day. Meng also wants plexiglas safety shields installed at all station platforms.
'Apart from pursuing the truth of my son's death, I am alerting more passengers to the hidden dangers of taking the subway,' she said.
'I hope his death isn't wasted. It would be valuable if his death led to the installation of glass platform shields.'
Meng has demanded that the Beijing Mass Transit Railway Operation Corporation, which runs the network, show her surveillance footage of the day her son died.
But a 10-minute section of footage from 10.39pm on August 23, 2010, was automatically deleted by the computer system and could not be recovered, an investigation team told Meng in November.
'I feel extremely upset here,' Meng said, standing just metres from where she thinks her son died. 'It's the saddest place, but I must come this time every year.'
Meng has put her son's body in cold storage in the Beijing suburb of Qinghe and plans to keep it there until she knows the truth.
But Meng says the corporation's management has a predictable formula for dealing with these cases.
'They usually try to shift responsibility to victims by saying they jumped off the platform for various reasons, including bad mood, dizziness and fatigue,' Meng said. 'Then they refuse to provide footage from the surveillance cameras. They also try to threaten to make you pay financially for the delay to subway traffic caused by the fall.'
Hao Jinsong, a Beijing-based legal academic, said it should be possible to retain surveillance camera footage for up to a month for reference.
Corporation spokesman Jia Peng said it was abiding by the law and not everybody was allowed access to surveillance footage.
'By convention, the surveillance footage in every country is kept for a certain time, but not forever,' Jia said.
'We have already given an answer about [Ma's] death last year. No further replies [are necessary]. Please check last year's news report.'
Other victims, including the mother of a 24-year-old woman who died at Chegongzhuang station in January 2002, say their appeals to review surveillance footage have also been refused.
A 27-year-old woman who fell from a Sihuidong station platform in the morning rush hour five months ago claims the corporation not only turned down her request to see the recording, it also went back on a promise to pay 20,000 yuan (HK$24,400) in medical expenses.
'I was queuing in front for the train on Line 1 and I had no idea how I fell,' she said. 'When I opened my eyes, I was on the tracks and the front of the train was about a metre away.'
She ended up badly bruised and needing more than 10 stitches on her face, with the subway company insisting it was her fault.
'I was so disappointed by the way they handled it. They simply tried to blame everything on me,' she said, refusing to be named for fear of worrying her parents.
Two years ago, the Beijing municipal government introduced dozens of new safety rules, making the corporation responsible for passengers' deaths and injuries except in cases of poor health or intental self-harm.
'But the corporation simply doesn't want to take responsibility because the accidents could lead to people losing their jobs,' Meng said. 'The Beijing subway is an important transport system - [up to] seven million passengers use it every day - so sometimes it can override the government and the law.'
However, public awareness of safety issues on the rail systems is growing, particularly since the death of 13-year-old Wu Shibo from a faulty escalator at the Beijing Zoo subway station on July 5 and the Wenzhou high-speed-train crash that killed at least 40 people a few weeks later.
'There are dozens of accidents on the Beijing subway every year that aren't looked into properly,' Meng said. 'Do a lot of people have to lose their lives in one accident for officials to be alarmed enough to examine the hidden dangers of the subway?'
Two particular sources of concern are Lines 1 and 2, the capital's archaic primary lines that were built in the 1950s and '60s and still have no safety shields to stop people falling off platforms. Wu Mingli, a professor of electricity supply at Beijing Jiaotong University, said safety shields can reduce significantly the number of accidents.
Corporation spokesman Jia said work was under way to put shields in place. 'All work is expected to be completed in four years,' he said.