SHANGHAI – Like tens of thousands of other revelers, 24-year-old Pan Haiqin decided to ring in the New Year on Shanghai's famed waterfront, as the skyscrapers across the Huangpu River flashed and sparkled. But as the crowd grew and then turned into an out-of-control crush of bodies, the real estate professional never made it up the steps to see the lights.
Nearly 20 hours later, her parents and friends identified her trampled body in a city morgue, one of 36 people killed in one of the deadliest accidents to hit this showcase Chinese city. With another 49 people injured, hundreds of family members mourned the dead, who were predominantly young and female. And on social media and TV airwaves, many Chinese were asking how such a tragedy could have taken place in one of the country's most high-profile urban areas.
"I blame myself for it. I did not protect her," said Pan's boyfriend, Zhao Weiwei, his eyes welling up with tears. "She was a cheerful woman who worked so hard in this city."
As China's financial hub, Shanghai is known for a better-oiled municipal government than most other Chinese cities, with its leaders supposedly savvier in managing traffic and crowds.
Authorities were still investigating the cause of the stampede. Street vendors, residents in the waterfront area, taxi drivers and witnesses say the city failed to prepare for the massive turnout Wednesday night despite the city cancelling a much-hyped midnight light show on the Bund waterfront.
Grieving family members and friends say the failures continued after the tragedy, with relatives kept in the dark on rescue efforts. On Friday, many were forced inside a government compound, with reporters kept out.
"We are basically placed under house arrest," Cai Jinjin, whose cousin Qi Xiaoyan was killed in the stampede, said before an Associated Press reporter was asked by Shanghai police to leave the compound.
During previous annual light shows, city and military police tightly controlled foot and car traffic. But on Wednesday night, the tens of thousands were allowed mostly to roam freely.
"On major holidays, the viewing platform is always restricted — which is known to us all, but this time it was completely open," said a waterfront resident, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisal. "And how could you have two-way traffic on those steps with huge crowds?"
Zhao said the crowd pushed his girlfriend and others to the bottom of the steps face-up and they were stepped on by countless people.
"We were holding hands then, but no way could we resist the force coming down," he said. "We were separated, and people fell down face-up, piling on each other. When we were able to pull them out, many were already unconscious."
Chaos ensued, and Zhao said he took Pan to a hospital in an ambulance that was packed with bodies.
"She only had underwear on her, and I placed my sweater and jacket onto her and tried to resuscitate her," he said.
Other family members arrived later at the hospital — many traveling hours from outside Shanghai — only to be given little or no information about their loved ones, they said.
Pan's parents, migrant workers in the neighboring province of Zhejiang, weren't told anything until 8 p.m. the next day. They were then shown her body in a morgue.
In another Shanghai hospital, family members of Yang Chunyu said they were repeatedly denied requests to see the woman's body. Only after they protested their treatment were they allowed access.
"I arrived in Shanghai around 7 p.m. but nobody could tell me anything," said her uncle Yang Kougen. "We were told any request needed to be approved by supervisors but we did not see any bosses."
Pan's father finally attempted to block traffic near the government compound — where some family members were placed — to demand that senior government officials speak to relatives. The police responded by detaining him.
Associated Press video journalist Helene Franchineau and news assistant Fu Ting contributed to this report.