Parents had safety fears for jammed China bus

November 17, 2011 - 4:30 AM
China Bus Accident

In this photo taken on a mobile phone, two police officers, front, investigate at the accident scene where a kindergarten minibus, left, collided head-on with a truck loaded with coal, right, on a road at Yu Linzi township in Qingyang, in northwestern China's Gansu province, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011. At least 17 kindergarten kids and two adults were killed when the nine-seater school minibus crammed with 64 people crashed on its way to class in western China, officials and state media said. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT

BEIJING (AP) — Every time the dozens of kindergarteners 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 18 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.

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 in hospital 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.

"Poor kids. What use the magnificent government buildings? Look at the school buildings in poor areas. Is this a so-called harmonious society? What are all the government officials doing?" asked a user who goes by the name of Soho Newcomer 2003322.

"If there were no left behind children in China, if kids could grow up around their parents, how much happier would the Chinese be," asked a user whose name translated as Cosy Little Home.

"The government has just treated the migrant workers like nothing," said another, lun1.

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

Three Zhengning county government 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 that 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.

Li said that most of the overloaded school vehicles involved in several deadly accidents in recent years were ordinary cars that fell well short of meeting 2010 school bus safety regulations on seat belts, windows, interior fittings and exits.

The Global Times carried a report Thursday on a national trend to consolidate rural schools by building new larger schools or expanding existing ones as part of China's education reform in rural areas that began in 2000 and now provides nine years of free education.

It quoted an estimate by the China All Women's Federation that there are 58 million children who have been "left behind" by parents who work in the cities.