May 8, 2007 / 12:05 PM / 11 years ago

China 1994 fire killed 288 pupils as officials fled-expose

BEIJING, May 8 (Reuters) - A total of 288 children were killed in a 1994 theatre fire in northwest China mainly because they were told to remain seated to allow officials to leave after the blaze broke out, according to an expose by a journalist.

A total of 323 people were killed in the fire in the oil town of Karamay in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang on Dec. 8, 1994. The high death toll was then blamed on locked exits and the failure of officials to check safety facilities beforehand, and to organise effective evacuation.

Chen Yaowen, a reporter for the state-run China Central Television, published "Belated Report: Unveiling the mystery surrounding the 12-8 Karamay fire" on his blog this month, sparking outrage on the Internet.

"The Karamay inferno 12 years ago that shook the heavens has always been agony at the bottom of my heart," Chen wrote on his blog <chenyaowen.blshe.com>.

"I felt the need to do something to comfort these innocent souls ... comfort angry survivors and the injured who are better off dead," said Chen, whose documentary on the tragedy has been banned by censors.

Fourteen officials and theatre staff were jailed for up to seven years for fleeing the scene and failing to report the fire.

A local education official who organised the song and dance performance, Kuang Li, locked herself in the toilet, keeping out children who suffocated, according to Chen's blog. Kuang was jailed for four years.

The most senior official at the scene, then Vice Mayor Zhao Lanxiu, was jailed for four years and six months. But the outspoken Southern Weekend newspaper defended her last December, saying she helped rescue students and lost the upper half of her fingers.

A picture posted on Chen's blog showed a man trying to open a locked exit billowing with smoke. Another showed an official weeping and apologising on television.

There were also pictures of the funeral and the injured lying in hospital beds.

The fire was the second worst since the 1949 Communist revolution and eclipsed only by a 1977 inferno, also in Xinjiang, in which 694 people died -- 597 of them children.




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