SCMP Friday, March 9, 2001

Madman blamed for blast


A lone madman was responsible for the explosion at a school in China that killed at least 41 students and teachers, Premier Zhu Rongji said yesterday.
But the father of an 11-year-old who died in the blast accused officials of lying. Zhang Chenggen said the school in the village of Fanglin, Jiangxi province, had forced children to make fireworks to cover its budget and benefit teachers.
"Everybody knows it was caused by the fireworks. The Government is trying to cover up the facts. Please do not believe them," Mr Zhang said.
A doctor at the township hospital claimed the number of fatalities had doubled to more than 80, although this could not be confirmed independently.
In Beijing, Mr Zhu said a lone madman was responsible.
"I also suspected at the beginning that the primary school was trying to make extra profit so they stored the materials [to make firecrackers] in the school.
"Now we have found out this is absolutely not the case. The materials were put in later [by a bomber]. The suspect died after he set off the explosion," Mr Zhu said before a meeting with delegates representing the SAR at the National People's Congress.
"Our initial assessment is that this was someone with mental problems."
Mr Zhu's comment coincided with a statement by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) which expressed "deep regret and outrage" at the explosion.
"Our regrets go to the families of the young victims," Unicef said. "Our outrage is directed at school officials who allegedly forced the children, as young as eight, to assemble fireworks on school grounds. Exploitative child labour of any form is morally unacceptable and a violation of children's rights and international law."
Zhang Minggen, the father of a boy and girl killed in the explosion, said parents had complained for three years about an illegal firework sweatshop at the school but that officials did nothing. Now they fear a cover-up.
"There's no law," Mr Zhang said. "My son and daughter were in school. That's supposed to be a safe place. I want justice, punishment. I want those responsible to be brought out to face us villagers."
He said he and other parents had repeatedly complained to township authorities and to the county government about the school illegally requiring pupils to make firecrackers during class or in the lunch hour.
"My son told me his teacher forced him to kneel on the ground to punish him when he refused to make firecrackers," Mr Zhang said. "I went to complain to the township government. They said they would look into it, but they did not put a stop to it."
He and other parents rejected the madman theory. Mr Zhang said he had seen fireworks in the classrooms. "They're trying to cover it up, lie to us," he said.
Ding Mingxing, a father who lost his nine-year-old son, said: "They won't let the reporters in here. They said it would interfere with their work. But you can do your work and they can do their work. We have a right to express our opinions."
Police erected roadblocks around the village to keep out reporters and detained at least three who tried to reach the remote mountainous area. State television and major newspapers have not reported the disaster.
"In one street, I saw four families holding funerals outside their homes at the same time," said Mr Ding. "The parents were crying and screaming 'the children died unjustly'. They were crying out to the sky and to the earth. The school is supposed to be the safest place.
"A mother whose child still had not been dug up from the rubble went insane. She was laughing and crying at the same time as she wandered aimlessly down the street."
A local official said the school headmaster, who villagers alleged organised the fireworks sweatshop with the local Communist Party secretary, was missing and believed to have fled.

China News Service, a news agency run by Xinhua, said Jiangxi Governor Shu Shengyou had flown back from Beijing on Wednesday and arrived in Wanzai county to supervise the rescue operation and investigation.