SHANGHAI – On New Year's Eve of 2013, Shanghai authorities sent about 6,000 city police officers and requested help from military police to manage a 300,000-strong crowd that filled the city's famed riverfront for the annual midnight light show. According to state media, police choked off access to an elevated viewing platform reachable through staircases and closed the nearest subway station to rein in the crowd.
On Wednesday night, just as many revelers showed up to ring in 2015, but the venue was guarded by only 700 police officers with no traffic control, state media reported. People were free to walk up and down the staircases, and the closest subway station was left open.
The city had already canceled the light show on the Bund, as the riverfront area is known, and apparently downgraded police deployment and crowd control measures. When the authorities became alarmed by the huge crowd, they called in another 500 police officers — but it was too late.
Three dozen people ended up trampled or asphyxiated to death in a stampede at the bottom of a 17-step, 5-meter-wide (16-foot-wide) concrete staircase, shocking a city proud of its professional urban management and a country eager to show off its most cosmopolitan city.
While investigations continue into the New Year's Eve tragedy, eyewitness accounts and state media reports point to a sequence of miscalculations by city officials that helped create the out-of-control conditions leading to the stampede.
"You canceled the light show, but did you properly notify the public?" asked a father who lost his daughter in the stampede but declined to give his name for fear of offending the authorities. "Once people started to show up in the hundreds of thousands, did you have backup measures to ensure safety? What were you doing during the time the crowds were growing?"
"The government has been seriously derelict of its duties," he said sternly.
A landmark and top attraction of this financial hub, the Bund has been a high priority for local authorities, but the lack of police deployment on Wednesday shows an oversight by Shanghai's government, said Zhao Chu, a local resident and an independent commentator.
"It's been a tradition to see the lights on the Bund on New Year's Eve. Shanghai people know it, and the whole country knows it," Zhao said. "The government should have foreseen the crowds on that night. Such incidents could have been avoided."
Liu Tiemin, a researcher at the China Academy of Safety Science and Technology, told China's official Xinhua News Agency that managing such a huge crowd requires splitting the mass into smaller, less chaotic groups, and making sure crowds move in one direction through the space. Neither strategy was followed in Shanghai, Liu said.
The next day, authorities flooded the Bund and an adjacent commercial road with thousands of police and military personnel to control traffic. "The stampede would not have occurred if they had been here last night," a street vendor said, gesturing toward the uniformed police.
For three New Year's Eves in a row, Shanghai hosted the spectacular midnight show on the Bund, but authorities canceled it this year because of worries about overcrowding. China's major cities were already on edge after a series of knife, bombing and vehicular attacks blamed on terrorists left hundreds of people dead.
Instead, authorities opted for a smaller light show to be held at a nearby 2,000-person venue that required admission tickets.
Local media in Shanghai reported on the plans for the scaled-down light show several days before the event, but did not give many details, according to the financial news magazine Caixin. Meanwhile, the media continued to hype a light show, the magazine said. The new venue also has a similar name to the Bund, which may have added to the public confusion.
Starting at around 8 p.m. Wednesday, revelers began showing up on the lightly patrolled riverfront.
Authorities say investigations into the tragedy are ongoing, but patrol officers have confirmed that the city downgraded police deployment on the Bund on Wednesday night.
"Because there was no scheduled event, there was no traffic control," patrol officer Wang Qiang told state media, adding that tourists kept asking him if there would be a light show.
At around 11:20 p.m., as huge crowds gathered, authorities reminded them that the annual light show on the riverfront had been canceled. Ten minutes later, surveillance video showed a massive jam of people on the steps at the end of a public square featuring a statue of the city's first Communist mayor, Chen Yi. Those steps lead to the best vantage point to view the Huangpu River and the skyscrapers across the water.
Authorities responded by dispatching 500 more police, but at around 11:35 p.m., people fell row by row on the steps under the crush of the crowd, which was trying to move both up and down the steps, survivors and eyewitnesses said.
"It was unstoppable. The force from above fell on us," recalled Zhao Weiwei, a survivor whose girlfriend, Pan Haiqin, died in the stampede. "There might have been two to three security people. That was virtually none."
Yu Ping, another survivor, said: "There was no security. Not at all."
Family members, survivors and witnesses also complained of a lack of emergency response in the wake of the disaster. Police vehicles and private cars were used to transport the victims, with little medical emergency service available, and the victims arrived in emergency rooms only to see few medical professionals, they said.
In one case, family members of a 25-year-old woman said that she had a stable pulse, opened her eyes twice and appeared conscious when she was put into a vehicle and taken to a hospital, but that there was no doctor on hand to treat her when she arrived.
"As one of the first to arrive at a hospital, she should have had the best chances of survival, but the delay cost her life," said a statement by her family, which requested anonymity because of fears of possible government reprisals.
"We are extremely angry," the woman's uncle told The Associated Press. "Her life should not have been ended like this."
Associated Press writer Jack Chang in Beijing contributed to this report.