SHANGHAI (AP) – On New Year’s Eve of 2013, Shanghai authorities sent about 6,000 city police officers and requested help from military police to manage a 300,000-strong crowd that filled the city’s famed riverfront for the annual midnight light show. According to state media, police choked off access to an elevated viewing platform reachable through staircases and closed the nearest subway station to rein in the crowd.
On Wednesday night, just as many revellers showed up to ring in 2015, but the venue was guarded by only 700 police officers with no traffic control, state media reported. People were free to walk up and down the staircases, and the closest subway station was left open.
The city had already cancelled the light show on the Bund, as the riverfront area is known, and apparently downgraded police deployment and crowd control measures. When the authorities became alarmed by the huge crowd, they called in another 500 police officers – but by then it was too late.
Three dozen people ended up trampled or asphyxiated to death in a stampede at the bottom of a 17-step, five-metre-wide concrete staircase, shocking a city proud of its professional urban management and a country eager to show off its most cosmopolitan city.
While investigations continue into the New Year’s Eve tragedy, eyewitness accounts and state media reports point to a sequence of miscalculations by city officials that helped create the out-of-control conditions leading to the stampede.
“You cancelled the light show, but did you properly notify the public?” asked a father who lost his daughter in the stampede but declined to give his name for fear of offending the authorities. “Once people started to show up in the hundreds of thousands, did you have backup measures to ensure safety? What were you doing during the time the crowds were growing?”
“The government has been seriously derelict of its duties,” he said sternly.
A landmark and top attraction of this financial hub, the Bund has been a high priority for local authorities, but the lack of police deployment on Wednesday shows an oversight by Shanghai’s government, said Zhao Chu, a local resident and an independent commentator. “It’s been a tradition to see the lights on the Bund on New Year’s Eve. Shanghai people know it, and the whole country knows it,” Zhao said. “The government should have foreseen the crowds on that night. Such incidents could have been avoided.”