Blast kills dozens of pupils told to make fireworks

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The Independent Online

More than 60 Chinese schoolchildren are feared dead in an explosion apparently caused by a store of firecrackers that the headmaster had ordered pupils as young as eight to assemble in their classrooms.

More than 60 Chinese schoolchildren are feared dead in an explosion apparently caused by a store of firecrackers that the headmaster had ordered pupils as young as eight to assemble in their classrooms.

The blast on Tuesday morning was in a village school in Wanzai County, in east China's Jiangxi Province, a poor region that has become notorious for firework-related accidents in recent years.

The two-storey building was split apart by the force of the explosion. Forty-one children and teachers are confirmed dead, with 27 injured, some seriously, but it is feared that more than 60 might have perished from among the 200 people believed to be inside the school.

A government spokesman in Wanzai County said: "Most probably it is because of firecrackers, but a final result will come out after investigators convene."

The blast at 11.10am smashed the windows of the nearby home of Ding Mingxing. The villager rushed to find his nine-year-old son amid the wreckage of the school's four classrooms. "I kept calling my son's name. Other kids were crying out for help. I kept asking 'Is that my child?' As soon as I heard a cry, I went toward it. When I saw a leg or an arm sticking out, I went after it. I rescued four kids, three boys and a girl, but I couldn't find my son," he told the AFP news agency. Army rescuers located his body later that afternoon.

The father vowed to seek justice. He said: "I stood on a school desk amidst the rubble of the collapsed school and shouted, 'We need to unite to fight for justice for our children, fight for payment of the blood debt'."

A number of reliable Chinese websites alleged yesterday that the headmaster of the cash-strapped school signed a contract to supply a local fireworks factory. The suggestion was that children were punished if they refused to fix the fuses to firecrackers.

The explosion and revelations about its likely cause come at an embarrassing time for the Chinese government. At the annual session of China's legislature, the country's leaders have unveiled several ambitious projects for the next Five Year Plan (2001-05), yet down in China's villages, where most of the population still lives, the authorities cannot protect their most vulnerable citizens from exploitation.

The Jiangxi provincial governor and local government chiefs beat a hasty retreat from Beijing, but quick access is impossible to the remote area 480 miles south-west of Shanghai.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the young Mao Zedong roamed this mountainous region to escape the persecution of Chiang Kai-shek. Seven decades later, its infrastructure remains backward, hampering rescue efforts, and poverty afflicts many villages.

With the agreement of the local Communist Party secretary, the school's headmaster is understood to have turned to the firework trade to pay the bills, despite its lethal track record. Almost one year ago, on 11 March, a firework factory explosion in adjacent Shangli County claimed 21 lives. A similar incident elsewhere in Shangli caused 33 deaths last August. Yet the fireworks sector generates some 70 per cent of income for Shangli County, encouraging local officials to condone the dangers.

Last September, China announced it was banning 20,000 illicit firework manufacturers, but officials at the local level are increasingly willing to flout central dictats. The government is hard-pressed to find new jobs for the laid-off workers from bankrupt firms, let alone improving conditions for those lucky enough to have jobs.

Ding Mingxing insisted yesterday that he and other parents had complained in vain to the township government about the "mandatory" class work. But as China's school fees rise to the extent that poorer parents are forced to withdraw their children, the knowledge that education offers the only route out of poverty may persuade many to tolerate the risks. Teachers elsewhere in rural China supplement their meagre state wages with the factory commissions they receive, while their pupils may also receive small change for their labours.