Train stampedes in China’s winter hell

Millions of Chinese workers battled for a precious train ticket home on Sunday as authorities struggled to keep order here following a stampede for seats that left a woman trampled to death.

The savage winter snows and freezing temperatures that have brought much of the nation to a standstill have transformed the southern city of Guangzhou in particular into a seething mass of frustrated humanity.

Hopelessly outnumbered, about 2 000 riot and army police fought to hold back crowds of hundreds of thousands of mainly migrant workers surging forward at the merest hint of an opening to a train platform.

For many, the Lunar New Year holiday is the only chance to escape to their families from their toil in the factories of southern China.

As Premier Wen Jiabao urged people to be brave amid the worst winter in 50 years, they waited exhausted and desperate amid growing piles of rubbish and human waste.

Li Kuochun, a 28-year-old trying to reach Hunan province, said people were pushing out of sheer frustration.

”I’m quite worried there will be a stampede,” he said. ”I just try to walk slowly but people keep pushing. You’re squeezed between people and can hardly move or breathe. But I think it’s worth the danger and risking my safety to go home and see my family. They are all back there and I really miss them.”

Still, the crowds reduced one young woman to tears after losing touch with her friends and most of her belongings. ”I have my ID and all my money in there; please, you have to find my handbag for me,” she sobbed to an officer, who offered her water and urged her to calm down.

The blizzards and icy temperatures that have lasted nearly three weeks now have stranded millions of people at airports, railway stations and bus depots in China’s south, central and eastern regions.

The weather has destroyed crops, hit industrial production, disrupted coal and food supplies and led to power failures, for a bill estimated at about $7,5-billion, according to official figures.

At least 105-million out of the country’s 1,3-billion population have been affected and more than 60 have been killed, the government says.

They include a woman crushed at Guangzhou. Police were unable to control a crowd surging to board a train and in the chaos she fell and was trampled to death, Xinhua news agency reported.

China’s leadership has been working overtime as it tries to project concern for the millions of stranded passengers, and Wen urged courage in the face of the national disaster.

”We have the faith, courage and ability to overcome” the disaster, he said in a radio address from a train in China’s southern Hunan province, where a usually temperate climate has caught the region unprepared.

Television footage from Hunan quoted him hailing those who had given their all for the relief effort. ”In the face of disaster, they show us composure, bravery and the spirit of sacrifice,” he was quoted as saying.

The crisis has prompted China to dispatch more than one million troops and 65 500 medical workers to deliver relief. So far, the medics have treated more than 200 000 ill and injured people, the Health Ministry said.

State television on Sunday showed workers trudging through the snow to repair power lines in Guizhou province, one of the worst-hit areas.

There may be worse to come. More bad weather is impeding efforts to restore electricity in Hunan, and forecasters are predicting more snow across central, eastern and southern provinces.

Xinhua quoted Yin Jijun, a State Grid official, as saying many Hunan power facilities had been damaged in the conditions. He warned: ”As the weather has deteriorated again, the regional power grid, in particular the southern grid in the province, is facing acute challenges.” — Sapa-AFP

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