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China: Deadly subway tunnel collapse – who to blame?

A striking moment

Ye, a daily paid worker on the construction site, recalled what happened at the moment. “A BANG was heard shortly after some one crying ‘run! The steel bars are falling!”’, he described, “and soon the tunnel started to collapse from the south to north.”

This collapse he recalled has dominated the internet as a heated topic in these a few days, referred to as the most serious accident of subway construction ever in China.

Hangzhou, a well-known tourism city in southern China, witnessed the accident. On 15, Nov, a 100-meters-long–50m-wide section of the subway tunnel under construction collapsed. Instantly, at least 20 workers were buried. Because the tunnel is right under an 8-lane-wide, riverside road in use, over 10 vehicles were trapped in as the roadway cracked open in a sudden. To make it worse, the river water mixed with silt poured in, which cut off many people’s way out.

A 41-year-old worker recalled that a crane above was trying to lift people out of the crater, but since too many flooded to around, people who couldn’t grip the crane fall down. He heard people crying for help, but he could do nothing. He also saw supporting rods hitting on his co-workers.

Though over 40 people managed to run out, more than 20 were missing on the day. Later, a huge rescue effort started.

On a local online bulletin board, 19lou, a netizen reported her witness shortly after the accident:

亲眼目睹~杭州风情大道地铁施工塌方,我家车车离它就20几米路啊,后怕~

I witnessed the collapse, and my car was merely 20ish meters away from it! I was so scared~

Among replies calling her a lucky dog, some one said:

LZ,你跟我表哥一样,我表哥那时候也在那等红灯才逃过一劫

You are just like my cousin. He was waiting at the red light so that he narrowly avoided his misfortune.

The scores of injured workers were sent to hospitals. Many of them felt hard to recall the striking moment.

“In a seconds, water, soil and steel rods were all falling down”, Zhang, a worker running out of the site said. His colleague Ji-Shuiping complained, “I will never do this job (subway construction) in my life again—even if I were to be a beggar.”

On 22, the 11th body was found. Given hose stilled buried with slim chance to survive, the death toll is estimated to be 21.

An inquiry into responsibility— more tragedies on the way?

Not only city leaders, but also state officials were vowing a complete investigation. Meanwhile, the heads of the subway project contractor, China Metro Civil Engineering Group Co. Ltd (CTCEG), also flied to Hangzhou to discuss details on the cause of the accident and compensation for victims. The CTCEG is a state-run group.

On 16th, the group’s CPC vice secretary apologized to public at a press conference for the disaster.

However, more than one sign of the tragedy have been detected long before the accident happened. In other words, the tragedy is not inevitable. The Southern Metropolis Daily reported:

湘湖地铁站附近东湖社区居民向记者证实,早在大半个月前,风情大道已经出现裂缝。来自安徽的孙全众向记者介绍,他只来了18天,已经眼见过两次裂缝。发现隐患后,施工方用水泥加固、钢筋加固来弥补这些裂缝带来的地面下沉破碎,但地铁施工却没有停下,惨剧终于发生。

Residents around the subway station proved to the journalist that, more than half a month ago, cracks have appeared on the road. Sun-quanzhong from Anhui province told that in his 18 days here, he has seen cracks for two times. After they were spotted, however, the constructor didn’t suspend the work. They only used cement and steel rods to patch up the broken roadbed. And finally the tragedy happened.

Why no one suspended the project?

A news piece reported that the frontline supervisor has actually reported to his superior, and, been waiting for further instruction al the time. No response, nevertheless. But three related officials firmly refused the saying, pointing out that such a critical problem should be fixed immediately even without a superior instruction.

But blogger Mou-Zongyong nosed out problems:

你看:
施工单位说——发现隐患需要先向领导汇报。
三位领导说——工程隐患需及时采取措施,不需等待审批。
注意,这是矛盾的!到底谁说的是事实?

Look:
The construction unit said: we should first report to officials and wait for approval.
The three officials said: no approval is needed to fix the problems.
Attention: these sayings are in conflict! Who have told the truth?

He further pointed that carrying on the project without suspension is the “wise” decision for the construction unit.

但人命并非先验。如果施工单位发现隐患采取措施,结果影响了工期、增加了开支,可最后没出事故——那领导们是不是还会说:没问题,你有这样的权利?

No one could be sure there was going to be a deadly accident. If the unit took measures that retards the project progress and adds to the budget, while nothing happened eventually, would the official still say this: no problem, you have the authority to do so?

So, the essential guide for action is not fact or actual situation, but, as he concludes:

在我们的利益体系中“长官意志”越超了一切

In our system, the will of superior officials is dominant over everything.

Another columnist, Bi-shicheng, calling for more expertise on leadership, has the similar view:

施工单位或许也有苦衷:如果面对的不是简单明了的“小隐患”,而是原因复杂矛盾尖锐但情况不甚明朗,需要进一步探明甚 至停工整顿的,那么,他们敢作出多少决断?如果进一步探明的是“小问题”,兴师动众的“大停工”若耽误整体规划布局,施工负责人是否能担当得起政府部门的 “问责”? 就判断施工隐患来讲,施工方显然比“上级领导”更为直接,也更为专业。那这群“更为专业的人”为什么只能坐等不甚专业的“上级领导批示”来安排下一步工作呢?

The construction unit has its reason: how much of decision dare they make facing so complex, uncertain problem which requires much further investigation, or, even suspension of the whole project? If it boiled down to be a slight problem, is the frontline head able to afford the criticism of any higher official? The suspension overall, might slack the entire plan! Though the constructers are of much more expertise than their higher officials, why dare they not take actions instead of sitting there to wait for orders as they have done in this case?

More scandals were gradually exposed once the accident attracted a nation-wide attention. Under the major contractor, the China Metro Group, there were over 20 subordinate groups, which joined the project by bidding procedure. China Youth Daily reported in APRIL that as early as when Hangzhou revealed the result of the bidding, rumor has had that the certain sub-contractors plotted to get the project by illegal methods.

In an official announcement, a vice manager of China Metro Group told three reasons of the accident:

一是土质,这段是淤泥质黏土;二是坍塌段路面是主干道,车流量大;三是近期持续性降雨。

First, the geographic compound of the roadbed is ball clay; second, the road is a traffic artery with lots of vehicles passing by; third, it has been raining continuously in these days.

Therefore, the soft soil, unlikely to support the tunnel wall, seems to be the wrongdoer to blame.

Opinion writer Hong Yang said:
一言以蔽之:怨天怨地怨人!
One sentence to conclude the official statement: what to blame: the weather, the ground, and the people driving along the road!

Is it really so simple?

Blogger Living-in-Circle replied: absolutely not!

2007年冬天,我去杭州文三路陪朋友看笔记本电脑,回来时打的。在出租车上,我遇到一个比较健谈的司机。这位司机语气沉痛但无比坚定的告诉我,在建的杭州地铁工程尽早会出事。据他称,浙江省内一个从事化学品生产的知名企业,竟然中标地铁建造,这是十分可笑的事情。因为,这家企业在中标后,因为自没有没资质,肯定会将工程转包,无疑会带来监督的缺失。
当时,我只是听听罢了,想想可能是这位司机的牢骚。没想到,真的出事了。我沉默半天后,立即想到了那个出租车司傅。原来,群众的眼睛始终是雪亮的。可能,已经有很多人都知道地铁建造存在隐患,只是,那些普通民众们,没有一个发表意见的渠道。如果普通民众能参与监督,那么,我想,杭州地铁不会出事,绝对不会。

In the winter of 2007, I went to the Hangzhou Sanwen Road to buy notebook with my friend. On our way back, we took a taxi and met a talkative driver. The driver said in a sad but self-assured voice that the Hangzhou subway under construction is sooner or later going to be in trouble. He said, it’s funny that a producer in Zhejiang province famous for chemical work successfully bid for the subway project. And because it has no way to do the work itself, it will certainly subcontract the project and therefore causes an absence of supervision.

I just took it as a street talk then. But now, unexpectedly, I know something really happened. After a long silence, I was reminded of the driver. I realize we people’s eyes are always sharp. Perhaps, a lot of us have already known the potential danger, but have no vent to have our voices out. If we common people can have a say in the supervision of the project, I think, the Hangzhou subway would have never, never gone into such a disaster.

More discussion will come in my following post that associates the tragedy with China’s overheating progress of infrastructure construction. Its recent massive $586 billion bailout, most of them put into such constructions (mostly state-run projects), might oil the fire already burning up. And such acceleration of construction, along with the absence of security measures, in many people’s view, is the essential cause of this accident.

3 comments

  • […] This post really caught my eye because before this big collapse happened many people were starting to notice cracks around the roads and no one seemed to be doing anything about it. If some one would of went up to the construction workers and reported this they could of stopped those 21 deaths that happened and they could of saved the subway station. I think people have to be more careful when doing stuff like this or when they are going to build a subway station I think they should take a closer look at where they want to put it and at all the dangers that are possible with it. It is little things and mistakes like this that are creating many tragedies around the world and that are taking peoples lives because people aren’t thinking enough about all of this they just want or need something so they decide to build it and they probably didn’t have one clue that this was going to happen.  All that this left behind was  the memories and the big mess from the station and the river which doesn’t do anyone any good. […]

  • Who to blame? The municipal government in this case, who else? It is a “common knowledge” that the municipal constructions are hot spots of corruption. It is sad to see that China is going to a worse direction and the central government is still planning to spend another $585B to boost economy – I’m sure a fair amount of this $585B will boost corruptions too.

  • […] Ye, a daily paid worker on the construction site, recalled what happened at the moment. “A BANG was heard shortly after some one crying ‘run! The steel bars are falling!”’, he described, “and soon the tunnel started to collapse from the south to north.” [link] […]

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