Shanghai New Year's Eve stampede
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People place flowers yesterday at the site of a deadly stampede on Shanghai's riverfront. At least 36 people were killed and dozens more were injured in the New Year's Eve tragedy. Photo: EPA

Shanghai police admit underestimating crowd ahead of New Year's Eve tragedy

Authorities say they deployed fewer officers on riverside ahead of deadly New Year's Eve event

Shanghai police admitted yesterday that they underestimated just how many people would crowd into the city's historic riverside area where a New Year's Eve stampede killed at least 36 people, deploying fewer officers than for other major events.

Witnesses said the tragedy could have been prevented if police had managed the crowd as it had in the past.

"The tragedy could have been avoided if enough police officers had been dispatched to maintain order," Ma Xiaobang, a witness in his early sixties, said. "I have been there every year to join in the fun but there had never been such chaos as this."

It was the fifth year a new year's event had been held on the Bund, previously attracting some 300,000 people.

On Wednesday night, thousands of pedestrians crowded onto a terrace on the Bund near Chen Yi Square to watch a light show beamed onto high-rise buildings on the opposite side of the Huangpu River.

At 11.35pm, a stampede broke out on stairs linking the terrace with Chen Yi Square below.

Hundreds of people were caught in the crush as they tried to move up and down the stairs and the whole area was engulfed in screams and chaos. Forty-nine people were injured, the authorities in Shanghai said on Friday, 13 of them critically. Thirty-one are still in hospital. A 12-year-old boy was the youngest among the dead, said.

"There was a smell of death at Chen Yi Square," said Zhou Yiye, who moved away from the stampede area just a few minutes before the tragedy. "You felt choked and scared when the crowd seemed to lose control."

Cai Lixin , deputy commander of the Huangpu district police station, yesterday said the number of police at the scene was lower than that deployed on National Day because the government had not organised any formal event in the square. But the crowd was larger than expected, Cai said. At least three witnesses said there was no crowd control near the stairs where the stampede broke out.

Shanghai has organised gala shows on the western bank of Huangpu River for new year countdowns in previous years, with a strong police presence on the riverside to control crowds and maintain order.

Witnesses said that in past years hundreds of police officers, some armed, stood watch in the area during the celebrations, preventing crowds from walking on the terrace.

Shanghai police did not state how many police officers were at the scene at the time of the stampede, saying only that they sent 500 officers to help disperse the crowd at about 11.30 pm when they noticed the crowd on the stairs was not moving. It took between five and eight minutes for the police to reach the staircase and it was already too late when they arrived, quoted police as saying.

There was no official estimate of the revellers in the area, and estimates by mainland media varied between 100,000 and 150,000 people.

"It was a big mistake that the stairs were not blocked at that time," an overseas visitor said. "It was frightening."

The authorities in Shanghai cancelled all new year celebrations yesterday as President Xi Jinping told them to "do everything in their power" to help the injured and investigate the cause of the stampede, according to state media.

The China National Tourism Administration also demanded tourists spots across the nation introduce proper crowd-control measures.

Shanghai authorities identified 33 of the injured, including a Taiwanese and a Malaysian. Another person from Taiwan was confirmed as among the dead. No Hong Kong people were on the list of victims.

Late last night police dismissed claims that the stampede was triggered by a scramble for coupons thrown from a nearby nightclub. The police said coupons were thrown after the stampede at about 11.47pm and 60 metres from the site of the tragedy. However, one witness said that at the very least, the coupons added to the chaos.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Police admit misjudging crowd