Parents had safety fears for jammed China bus

November 17, 2011 - 7:25 PM
China Bus Accident

A young survivor of a fatal collision between a school bus and a coal truck recovers at Qingyang People's Hospital in Qingyang City, in northwestern China's Gansu province Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011. An overloaded school minibus crashed head-on with a truck in rural western China on Wednesday, killing at least 18 kindergarten children on their way to class, officials said. (AP Photo)

BEIJING (AP) — Every time the dozens of kindergartners crammed into their makeshift bus for school in rural China, their relatives worried for their safety. Those fears were confirmed this week in a horrific wreck that killed 19 students.

"It was carrying way too many children," one boy's uncle said Thursday, a day after the crash in China's Gansu province. "It was very dangerous."

The nine-seater was stuffed with 62 students aged 3 to 5, plus a teacher and the driver, when it collided head-on with a heavy truck on Wednesday morning on its way to the Little Doctor Kindergarten in Qingyang city. The two adults also were killed, officials said, while the two people in the truck were unhurt.

The death toll rose by one on Thursday night after a 5-year-old boy with severe brain and other injuries died in a local hospital, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Police detained the truck's driver, Fan Jungang, on suspicion of causing a traffic accident and the kindergarten head, Li Jungang, on suspicion of causing a serious accident due to negligence, the Qingyang city government said on its website.

At Qingyang No. 1 People's Hospital, one of the two hospitals where the dozens of injured children were being treated, relatives said they knew the bus was overcrowded.

"Parents were worried about their children every time they sent them in the school bus," said the man, who would give only his surname, Zhou.

He is the uncle of 5-year-old Wu Cheng, who had been sitting in the back of the bus when it slammed into the truck. He was recovering from head and foot injuries, and his nose was bleeding intermittently.

His parents, like many of those of the young crash victims, were migrant workers — farmers and other poor people pushed to seek work outside of the countryside. Wu's parents work in Shanghai and heard of the bus crash on the news. They were hurrying to the hospital and were expected to arrive Thursday evening.

Wu was in a room on the intensive care floor with three other boys who also sustained head wounds in the crash, according to a nurse. They were out of danger and being watched over by their grandparents or other relatives.

There was an outpouring of sympathy for the plight of migrant parents and their "left behind" children on China's micro-blogging sites, popular especially with educated middle-class urbanites.

The Ministry of Education issued an "urgent notice" to education authorities and schools across the country to carry out safety checks of buses and immediately stop using vehicles with safety problems. It said education departments in poor rural areas should "actively win the support" of local governments in arranging or hiring safe vehicles.

The private Little Doctor Kindergarten is in Qingyang's Yulinzi township, which falls under Zhengning county.

Three Zhengning officials — the vice governor, traffic police chief and education chief — have been suspended and are under investigation, said Shi Zhengwei, deputy head of the Communist Party's propaganda department in Zhengning county.

Authorities have blamed the "overloading" of 64 people for the accident.

Such overcrowding on school buses is common in China. Commentators say closures of rural schools have exacerbated the problem, as children are forced to travel further to get an education while increasing the demand for buses.

Children who go to the kindergarten live from 1.6 to 5 miles (2.5 to 7.5 kilometers) away, said an official surnamed Gao from the Yulinzi township government.

Central government spending on education has steadily grown in recent years, rising a projected 16 percent this year to 296 billion yuan ($46 billion), about three-quarters of it given to local governments.

The overall figures mask great disparities, with rural areas chronically short of funds.

"The high cost of operating and maintaining school buses and the small profit made from this service stop many schools from purchasing them," Li Tao, laboratory director at the National Passenger Car Quality Inspection Center, was quoted as saying by the state-run Global Times newspaper.