SCMP Saturday, March 10, 2001

Blast girl: we made fireworks for four years


A schoolgirl who survived the classroom explosion that killed at least 42 people in eastern China said yesterday she and other pupils had been forced to make firecrackers in the school for the past four years.
Villagers living near the elementary school ridiculed an official explanation that Tuesday's blast was the work of a deranged suicide bomber.
Xinhua yesterday said a villager nicknamed "psycho" by his neighbours set off the blast which flattened four classrooms. A similar account was given in Beijing by Premier Zhu Rongji to Hong Kong reporters.
But pupil Gao Yun, 13, said her school building in Fanglin village, Jiangxi province, doubled as a fireworks factory, with punishment for children who did not work hard enough.
"We started to make firecrackers in the school four years ago, once or twice a week," said the girl, who was slightly injured in the explosion.
"Pupils in high grades make the barrels and those in low grades attach the fuses. If we produce more, our teachers give us rewards like pencils or notebooks. But if we don't meet our targets we are not allowed to go home."
Officials in Wanzai county say the practice is common in the poor, mountainous area, famous for its fireworks.
They blame a cutback on central government support for education, forcing schools to fund themselves.
Xinhua put the death toll at 42, but local officials say that 39 children and four adults were killed.
The news agency said a villager named Li Chuicai, 33, broke into a third-grade classroom carrying two bags stuffed with firecrackers which he detonated, killing himself and bringing the school crashing down.
Police say they found a notebook and 12 sheets of paper in his home with words like, "I will sacrifice myself . . . blast all, burn all . . . kill scores of them . . . all is over", Xinhua said. "The words . . . reflected that Li was mentally sick," it said.
"Li's fellow villagers called him 'psycho'," Xinhua reported, adding that the man's body was found at the centre of the explosion and traces of a chemical used to make fireworks were found in his home.
Villagers dismissed the official version as a whitewash. "Who dares to tell the truth?" one villager asked. "How can a pack of explosives destroy the whole school? We believe it could only be caused by a great quantity of explosives," he said, repeating a widely circulating report that the school was used as an explosives storage dump.
A Chinese newspaper reporter at the scene said local authorities were trying to suppress news of the tragedy: "Every reporter must get permission from county officials before they file."
Wen Hunan, whose 11-year-old son was injured, said his outgoing long-distance phone calls had been cut.
Several villagers said Li was mentally subnormal but had never shown any violent or strange behaviour.
They said he worked in the school making fireworks as part of the scam.
Zhang Cungen, a farmer whose son was killed, said Li's wife left him last year but he had not been overly upset. "The person who says that man is mentally ill is the one who is mentally ill," he said.
Villagers allege the school has been running the fireworks racket for years, despite repeated complaints. They claim it was masterminded by the headmaster and village Communist Party secretary.
Meanwhile,, one of China's leading Web sites, shut down its chat room in response to a flood of angry comments accusing the Government of covering up the explosion.