City mayor apologizes after 11 dead in school gym roof collapse in NE China
Published: Jul 24, 2023 08:19 PM
A ceiling collapsed at a school gymnasium at the No.34 Middle School in Qiqihar city, Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, on July 23, 2023. Photo: Sina Weibo

A ceiling collapsed at a school gymnasium at the No.34 Middle School in Qiqihar city, Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, on July 23, 2023. Photo: Sina Weibo

Eleven people died after the roof of a school gym in Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province collapsed, sounding the alarm for increased safety awareness during flood season. A preliminary investigation showed the collapse was the result of bags of perlite illegally placed on the roof.

Qiqihar city mayor Shen Hongyu apologized for the tragedy on Monday evening and expressed deep condolences to the 11 victims. It is the most serious safety incident to have taken place in Qiqihar in recent years causing immense pain for the families involved. The cost is extremely heavy, and the lessons are extremely profound, Shen said.

The roof of the gym collapsed at the Number 34 Middle School in the city of Qiqihar on Sunday afternoon while the school's female volleyball players were training, media reports said. 

According to the press conference held on Monday night, on the afternoon of Sunday, two coaches and 17 players from the school’s women's volleyball team were training in the gymnasium.

The young players of the volleyball team had represented the city of Qiqihar at a provincial competition, where they won second place, according to a previous announcement from the school. They were about to compete for the national games in Hubei Province, media reports said.

While rescue efforts were underway, local government organized professional forces to conduct a preliminary investigation into the cause of the incident. After investigation, during the construction of the teaching complex building adjacent to the gymnasium, the construction unit illegally stacked thermal insulation building material perlite on the roof of the gymnasium. Under the influence of rainfall, perlite soaked in water significantly increased in weight, resulting in increased roof load and collapse. 

Perlite is a construction material used for thermal insulation. A bag of perlite weighs around 8 to 10 kilograms, and its weight can increase 10 times when soaked in water, the Xinmin Evening News quoted a construction engineer as saying.

At present, the public security organs are investigating the relevant responsible persons of the construction unit of the teaching complex building, and have taken criminal compulsory measures according to law. The provincial government has set up a joint investigation team to conduct a comprehensive and in-depth investigation into the accident.

"It is a moment that I cannot erase from my mind. I saw the injured kids when they were taken out of the school late at night. I cannot describe how I feel," Taozi, a netizen, posted on social media, adding that her sister's child was one of the victims.  

The official rescue and death toll was updated on Monday morning, as the final death toll was 11. A total of 19 people were in the gymnasium when the ceiling suddenly collapsed, four of them escaped unharmed. 

Earlier media reports sparked a wave of controversy stemming from what some claimed belated reports on the death toll and the rescue situation. According to Jiupai News, a video of a victim's parent began circulating online on Monday. In the video, the father speaks out in front of a hospital emergency room, questioning the lack of timely communication and updates about the health of their children.

One commentator who preferred not to be named told the Global Times that more sympathy should be given to parents who are grieving the loss of their beloved children.

The commentator said the accident sounds an alarm for increased safety awareness across the country, especially during flood season, and he believes the government will continue the investigation and hold those involved responsible. 

Soon after the accident, provincial officials in Heilongjiang organized a meeting late Sunday to urge schools and gyms across the province to screen out any hidden safety risks. 

"All departments should wake up and learn a lesson from this accident to ensure safety," Heilongjiang Deputy Provincial Governor Wang Yixin told the meeting. 

The Chinese Ministry of Emergency Management held a meeting on Monday, urging education, sports, housing construction, and other departments across the country to learn from the tragic accident and carry out inspections and rectification of hidden dangers at schools and sports venues as soon as possible. 

The Ministry stressed the responsibility of relevant parties, calling for enhanced daily management to strictly prevent such accidents from happening.

The classroom building adjacent to the gym was designed by the MCC Tiangong Group and constructed by Heilongjiang Jiamei Construction. Jiamei Construction has won bids for a total of 17 projects in the past three years. Among the 17, 10 were government procurement projects and seven were construction projects, The Paper reported. 

Lawyers reached by the Global Times said the death of more than one person and serious injury of more than three people during construction constitutes a major liability accident crime. The construction company shall take legal responsibility in accordance with the law. The school may not be criminally liable but it should also take certain responsibility for the accident, they said.

Liu Changsong, a lawyer with Beijing Mugong Law Firm, told the Global Times that people who, in the course of production or operation of projects, violate relevant safety regulations and cause serious casualties or other serious consequences shall be sentenced to a fixed-term imprisonment of no more than three years. In severe circumstances, they can face up to seven years imprisonment.