No merit in looking for an easy scapegoat

MANY parents, relatives and friends spent the first few hours of the New Year worrying about the safety of their loved ones, fearing that they had been caught up in the tragedy that overtook the midnight revels in Lan Kwai Fong. The wait for news ended in grief and sorrow for those close to the 20 young people who died in the disaster, and for many more who suffered injury.

The toll of young lives is appalling. It is even harder to bear that it should have happened on what was a night of celebration. For Hongkong, 1993 has had the worst possible start.

It is easy to say, with the benefit of hindsight, that the accident in which innocent merry-makers were trampled to death or asphyxiated could or even should have been foreseen. It is similarly easy to argue that in the steep and narrow streets of Central's popular club and entertainment district, this was an accident waiting to happen, and that better controls should have been in place to prevent it.

The local police commander's admission, that the District Board had warned of the danger after a Halloween crowd became unruly in October, suggests that a defence is necessary on this charge.

While there were a large number of police on hand, including 16 on the corner of Wing Wah Lane, within 10 metres of the crush, it was impossible for rescuers to reach the victims against the pressure of the huge crowd.

Inevitably, after such a disaster, the first reaction of a bereaved community is to look for a scapegoat. The police yesterday declined to take on that sacrificial role.

It is therefore entirely appropriate that both the police themselves and the Government have announced enquiries to examine exactly what did happen, and to decide the lessons to be learned. The Government rightly chose to make its enquiry independent, and headed by a judge. Otherwise there would always be the worry that those in charge of planning and crowd control might seize on any one of the many rumours and accusations that have circulated since the disaster to justify their own actions.

Nonetheless, there are some lessons that can be learned already, without attempting to attribute blame. The police say there was no evidence of fighting or trouble-making before the crush, merely that people slipped and fell, and once down could not be helped. The first question then must be to decide whether the surface of an area that regularly draws such crowds can be improved, to prevent it becoming so slippery when wet that people lose their footing.

Secondly, should there be automatic police controls at the entrance to Lan Kwai Fong at the start of any festivity, ready to turn people away if the crowd appears to be building up to dangerous levels? Rather than say that the area as a whole can hold 10,000, 20,000 or 30,000 people, it must be clear that certain points along the street will become dangerous if all the bars are likely to empty at a particular moment.

At the risk of disappointing many who might be coming for a family night out to watch the revelry, as they might watch the Christmas lights in Tsim Sha Tsui on December 24, the police must be ready to turn people back for safety's sake.

Thirdly, is it not now time for laws banning alcohol consumption on the streets. Slippery pavements are dangerous at the best of times - and Lan Kwai Fong is reputed to have its share of problems with overflowing drains and fish delivery trucks discharging their water on the street outside restaurants. However, when spilled beer and champagne are added to the slime on the streets by uncontrolled revellers, the combination can be lethal.

In a way, Lan Kwai Fong has become a victim of its own success. The crowds that gather there reflect the fact that, despite the drinking, Lan Kwai Fong retains a reputation as an area of simple enjoyment. Hongkong has few well-known venues where thousands can congregate for spontaneous but virtually guaranteed street entertainment. Sadly, Thursday night's tragedy will dampen public enthusiasm for the area for a long time to come.