8 killed, 26 injured in China

BEIJING: Eight youths were killed and 26 injured when students descending a crowded staircase after evening classes at a school in central China lost their footing amid a crush of bodies, state media and the local government reported Tuesday.

Students were rushing out of evening study sessions at 9:10 p.m. on Monday (1310 GMT) at Xiangxiang city's private Yucai Middle School when some lost their footing and began to fall on top of one another in a stampede on the steps.

More than 400 students had been exiting classrooms via an enclosed stairwell just 4 feet (1.2 meters) wide, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

The dead were listed as seven boys and one girl, aged 11-14, while eight other students were hospitalized with serious injuries, according to a local government notice and the official Xinhua News Agency.

CCTV footage shot five hours after the tragedy showed a puddle of blood in a corner of a landing in the darkened, tunnel-like stairwell.

"I just can't describe how I feel," school guidance counselor Chen Xinwei told the station. "You see these students so full of life and then they're just gone in an instant. There's just no way to process it," Chen said.

A notice on the local government Web site posted around noon Tuesday (0400 GMT) said three of the injured had already left hospital and the five others were in stable condition.

Leaders of the city 720 miles (1,160 kilometers) south of Beijing immediately removed the head of the education bureau for bearing "leadership responsibility" for the accident, the government said.

The school's principal and chairman of its board of governors have been placed under a mild form of detention as part of the investigation, said a city government official reached by phone. Like many Chinese bureaucrats he refused to give his name.

The official said the education bureau has taken direct charge of the school's administration and had frozen its bank account.

Calls to the school's listed office number rang unanswered Tuesday morning.

Xinhua said the 12-year-old school has 3,500 students and is known as one of the city's best.

Such schools tend to have large class sizes but few emergency exits or other safety features. In addition to regular daytime classes, most feature evening revision sessions that are a standard requirement for advancement in China's grueling, exam-centered education system.

Despite harsh punishments aimed at forcing improvements, deadly stampedes continue to occur repeatedly in China's schools, usually as students are rushing to exams or charging out of class down tight corridors and narrow stairwells.

Writing on his blog about Monday night's deaths, middle school teacher Zhang Xiaojun from the western province of Gansu said campus safety awareness was confined mainly to slogans and ran a distant second to academic achievement in the minds of educators and students.

"The school's end-all, be-all is quality of education, which is to say, exam scores. Teachers and students consider scores as something as important as life itself and everything else is secondary," wrote Zhang, who teaches at the Zhangye school in Gansu.

Such stampedes, he wrote, could easily be prevented by assigning teachers to monitor halls and stairways: "No matter how naughty the children, nothing like this (accident) would happen."

Monday's incident was among the deadliest since the crushing deaths of 21 children in a northern China middle school in 2002 after a railing collapsed as hundreds of children were funneling down a pitch-dark staircase after evening review classes.

In that case, the school principal and three other people were arrested and charged with gross negligence and other crimes.