WENZHOU, China — When a high-speed train rammed into the rear of a second train on July 23 on a viaduct outside this eastern coastal city, the impact cost Chen Lihua, a 38-year-old father of two, eight broken ribs, a punctured lung and one shattered kneecap. His brother died of head wounds.
Those were the injuries. The insults came later.Mr. Chen said he lost roughly $6,000 in cash and other belongings in the accident. The railways ministry paid him a mere $35.
He asked to be transferred from a Wenzhou hospital to a better hospital in the city of Fuzhou, his hometown. Instead, the ministry moved him to an old-age home, where he receives no medical treatment, despite continuing lung trouble, back pain and other ailments due to his injuries.
“I want to cry, but I have no tears left,” he said. “Our family has already lost someone in this accident. How can they treat us like this? I am being tortured both physically and mentally.”
Almost two months after the high-speed rail crash killed 40 people and injured 191 others, a government investigative panel is readying a report on the disaster, expected to be released this month. But the injured and the survivors of the dead say they have already reached their own conclusions. They say the railways ministry, which has a long history of corruption, skimped on safety, bungled the rescue effort, tried to hide the extent of its failings and showed a callous disregard for victims.“They are their own little nation,” said Pasquale Liguori, who lost his daughter, a foreign-language student from Naples, Italy, who was on her first visit to China with her boyfriend. “The China Railways Ministry killed my daughter, and they want to hide everything that happened. It is revolting.”
The ministry has said it upholds high safety standards, did not prematurely end the rescue and is participating in a transparent investigation.
The ministry is indeed a fief, a holdover from the era when the state controlled all. With two million workers, it is perhaps the world’s fourth-largest employer, behind Wal-Mart. Its work force matches that of the entire United States federal government, excluding military and postal workers.
It owns the railways it regulates, a built-in conflict that critics say encourages corruption, endangers safety in the name of profit and hinders accountability. Its safety data are not publicly released. It runs its own court system and, until recently, its own police force.
The government has for over a decade discussed dividing the ministry’s business and regulatory functions, as it did years ago with the civil aviation industry. But using its clout as the nation’s mover of coal — and now, as the developer of high-speed rail into one of China’s technological and industrial crown jewels — the rail ministry has adroitly fended off reform.
“The ministry is a monster, half government agency, half for-profit company,” said Zhang Kai, a Beijing lawyer who has faced off against the ministry. “It can choose to behave like either one.”
It is not unusual for victims of government mishaps in China to find themselves isolated and helpless. Chinese authorities typically minimize events that suggest government incompetence lest they encourage social unrest.
But as crash victims and others tell it, the bureaucracy’s handling of the crash is a case in itself. Chinese officials have already declared that the disaster was preventable, caused by human error and poorly designed signal equipment. Now the ministry faces a dilemma: if the government’s investigation does not appear credible, it could hurt the ministry’s chances to export high-speed rail equipment and technology. But any admission of systemic flaws might also scare away customers.
The rescue effort seems clearly mismanaged. “We are utterly speechless and horrified by how the rescue operation was handled,” said Leo Cao, 29, a Ph.D. candidate in information science at the University of North Carolina. His parents were killed and his brother was critically injured in the crash.
“They brought in heavy machinery to restore train operations and to bury train sections at the scene while there were still human beings struggling for life in the wreckageb ,”
Mr. Cao said.
Chinese experts said rescue efforts should have continued for at least 72 hours, but the Chinese news media reported that the search for survivors was called off after less than eight hours.
Instead, workers cleared wreckage so rail traffic could resume, including digging a pit to bury a carriage of one of the trains involved in the accident
. It was dug up two days later after a public outcry alleging a cover-up.Time-stamped photographs show that workers left a corpse unattended on the ground for 90 minutes, focusing on repairs,
while frantic relatives waited for news at hospital morgues. A 2-year-old, trapped in a crushed carriage, was rescued 21 hours after the accident only because some local officials ignored the ministry’s orders and continued to search the wreckage.
The ministry’s own contingency plan for accidents emphasizes the need to “seize every minute and second to restore the traffic,” according to Southern Weekly, a Guangzhou newspaper. Less than 24 hours after the accident, it proudly announced that the Wenzhou line was again open for business.
Elsewhere, such conduct might fuel lawsuits, but the ministry’s insular system shields it. Mr. Zhang, the Beijing lawyer, represented a rail passenger who was arrested by railways police officers for allegedly slapping a conductor and shoving another. After a trial that 26 lawyers and academics charged was rigged, a railways court sentenced the passenger in March 2010 to three years in prison. “The No. 1 mission of the court is to protect the interests of the ministry,” Mr. Zhang said.
After families who lost relatives in the Wenzhou crash protested, officials increased the government’s offer of compensation to families to about $145,000. Mr. Liguori refused the offer, calling it an insult to the dignity of his daughter, Assunta. But a Chinese lawyer advised him in an e-mail that “any appeal is basically a waste of time.”
Most worrisome, half a dozen victims or their relatives said, is the imperious attitude of the ministry officials. Mr. Chen said Wu Yantang, the compensation team’s head, cursed his wife and threatened to block his transfer to his hometown hospital if he continued to press for compensation
. “His attitude reminded me of the mafia,” he said. “It chilled our hearts.”
Mr. Wu said, “Everyone was treated fairly according to the regulations.”
Lin Mingming said he protested the transfer of his father, who suffered major head injuries, to an old-age home with Mr. Chen. But he said he was told: “This is a political issue. You have no other choice.”
Some victims are pushing back. Mr. Cao’s parents remain in the morgue of Wenzhou People’s Hospital No. 2 while he and his brother seek legal advice. His brother, Henry Liheng Cao, 32, suffered a massive abdominal hemorrhage, a ruptured spleen and kidney, broken ribs and a fractured ankle. He remains hospitalized in Wenzhou.
“This train crash took the lives of my beloved parents, wrecked my good health and threw the future of my family into jeopardy,” said Henry Cao, an entrepreneur from Colorado Springs. “Fairness and justice is all that I ask. There are serious doubts whether such basic tenets are obtainable here.”