With a dazzling light show set to begin at midnight, a huge crowd of revelers had gathered for an outdoor New Year’s Eve in this city’s historic riverfront district. They began to grow unruly.
“We were just trying to walk up the steps to see the light show, and then people at the top began pushing their way down,” said a 20-year-old man. “Then I heard someone scream, and people began to panic.”
The man, who spoke while awaiting a friend at Shanghai No. 1 People’s Hospital, said, “We got crushed.”
In an instant, a stampede trampled and asphyxiated scores of people. So thick were the crowds that ambulances struggled to reach the victims, who had been partying moments before and now lay suffering or lifeless, some with dirty footprints on their clothes.
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By Thursday afternoon, at least 36 people had died in the stampede and 47 were known to be injured, and the police conceded that they had been ill prepared.
Even for China, the world’s most populous country, with a history of fatal stampedes and constant worries about crowd control, it was one of the worst public tragedies.
It was made more so because the stampede happened during a celebration in a historic showcase area of Shanghai, its version of Times Square.
Most of the victims were Chinese in their teens and 20s, who had hoped to ring in 2015 partying in the area, the Bund, the city’s famed riverfront promenade.
The stampede was a reminder of the challenges the authorities face in managing China’s megacities. Many people who had been milling around the Bund on Wednesday night said the huge crowds simply overwhelmed the authorities and the event organizers in this city of 25 million.
Some participants said the crowd may have been even larger than the 300,000 people who, according to an official count, had attended a year ago.
President Xi Jinping ordered an immediate investigation. And by afternoon, the police were even looking into reports that party-goers in a nearby building may have contributed by tossing fake $100 bills into the area. Police later ruled out that theory, saying the phony currency had been tossed after the stampede.
Still, they admitted having not anticipated such a problem. According to Xinhua, the official news agency, “the police expressed regret over their failure to effectively intervene when the tourist flow ‘increased irregularly’ at 11:30 p.m.”