Blow-by-blow account of how China buried the train

August 01, 2011

By ATSUSHI OKUDERA / Correspondent

WENZHOU, China--Reaching the site of a serious accident in China for a reporter is like running an obstacle course.

There may be no airline flights for quick and easy access, so reporters often have to take buses that run behind schedule, chart routes on roads on maps that often do not exist and run a gantlet of police checkpoints.

Reporters are tested on how quickly they can overcome unexpected obstacles and still cover the story.

I had to pass through such obstacles before I eventually reached the site where the driver's compartment of the destroyed front car of the bullet train involved in the July 23 high-speed train crash in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, was buried.

I got a call on the night of July 23, notifying me that a train had crashed on the high-speed railway track and railroad cars had fallen from the elevated bridge in Wenzhou. I was in a Shanghai restaurant after having dinner with a language teacher I used to study with in China.

I hailed a taxi and stopped at the Asahi Shimbun's Shanghai office to grab a camera.

It was Saturday and the office was closed, but I called an assistant and a driver to take me to the site.

I thought of returning home to grab a change of clothes, but gave up on the idea, thinking I should get to the site as quickly as possible. The later I departed, the more checkpoints I would have to clear.

After about a 5 1/2-hour drive, at 4:30 a.m., we arrived near the site in Wenzhou.

It was still dark, but there were many curious onlookers around, and the police were blocking the roads.

We were one kilometer from the site from which we could no longer use the car, so I started walking, with my camera hidden inside my backpack, pretending to be a local resident.

I was able to pass the first checkpoint.

The high-speed railway track came into sight, but walking was not easy due to the muddy road from the heavy rain. I was a bit concerned about my new sneakers. At this point I could afford to worry about my shoes.

I noticed the police and the fire department squad manning the next check station.

I could not go farther if I am stopped there, I thought, so I stopped interviewing a local witness.

I then mingled with hundreds of workers who were heading toward the accident site carrying pickaxes and huge hammers. I managed to get near the crushed train car.

My sneakers were muddy, but by this time I couldn't care less.

I was fortunate not to have been stopped by police, perhaps because it was still dark. I was one of two foreign reporters at the site, along with some local reporters.

At this point, the derailed car lay there--stuck straight into the ground and leaning against the elevated tracks.

The front car of the train, numbered D301, which had rammed a stopped train, was in front of me, upside down. The D301 was bound for Fuzhou, Fujian province.

The tip of the front car was stuck in the ground and the rear half was shattered.

Still, the driver's compartment, which was located about one-third from the front, retained its shape.

Shortly after 6 a.m., July 24

When I was talking with eyewitnesses of the accident, I saw heavy construction excavators approaching--seven of them.

As I watched, their operators started digging a hole along the nearby vegetable field.

I didn't give the digging much thought in the beginning, thinking they were removing soil in the muddy ground to make their work go smoother.

At around 7:30 a.m., an excavator, which had been digging, moved to the front car of the D301 train and began destroying it, swinging its boom wildly.

The movements of the excavator became more and more violent. Its bucket violently pushed the train car's body, and it started dragging the front train car.

I thought they had started removing the train car and asked a local reporter, "Isn't it too rough?"

After about 10 or 20 seconds I took my eyes off the excavator, and found the front car had disappeared.

I could not believe my eyes, thinking what I saw could not have occurred.

Since there was no trailer it could not have been carried away.

Curious, I took a good look at the site, and saw the front car had been pushed into a hole.

I finally realized that the hole they were digging was to bury the front car.

I hurried to the roof of a nearby four-story building and looked down. The hole was deeper than I had thought--it looked about 4 to 5 meters deep, 6 to 7 meters long and 20 meters wide. It was about the right size to accommodate a train car.

The buried D301 car was built by a Chinese company, using Japanese technology it had purchased from Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., the manufacturer of the Hayate bullet train.

In an ironic twist, a train car using Japanese technology was being crushed into a hole, using Japanese company excavators such as from Hitachi Ltd., Kobelco Construction Machinery Co., Komatsu Ltd. and Sumitomo Construction Machinery Co.

Shortly after 7:30 a.m., July 24

The train driver's compartment in the front car was being gradually destroyed.

The name plate Hexie (harmony), named after Chinese President Hu Jintao's political slogan, and the CRH letters, indicating the train was part of the high-speed railway, were visible at first, but the excavators obliterated these labels.

The driver's compartment of the train was filled with instruments such as a speed meter.

Is it permissible to bury a train car--involved in a collision accident--along with destroying the driver's compartment?

Until I arrived there at 4:45 a.m. July 24, the front car was upside down and its tip stuck in the ground, apparently making it impossible for investigators to have thoroughly examined the driver's compartment.

It took only a short time for the excavators to push the car into the hole, and I did not see investigators enter the site or inspect the driver's compartment.

Did the authorities try to destroy evidence?

Or did they just bury something that was an unpleasant reminder to them?

They should not do such a bungling thing, I thought.

But I was seeing the driver's compartment being crushed in the hole dug in the vegetable field in front of me.

I kept shooting images of the site with my camera and videotaping as well. By then a few other Japanese reporters had arrived.

A Chinese photographer, appearing stunned, said, "The car should be kept for investigation."

Another question occurred to me. They buried only the front car of the four-car train that fell from the elevated track after it rammed the stopped train.

The other three cars lay near the vegetable field, even though they were also being roughly treated by heavy construction machinery.

Why did they need to bury--and crush--only the car with the driver's compartment?

I asked this question of police officers patrolling near the hole, but no one admitted the car was being buried.

I also asked railway workers the same question. At first, they refused to respond, but one of them said at last, "It is natural to bury things that are not removable."

If I look at the Railways Ministry's actions from their point of view, I figure they did so in an effort to accelerate recovery, thinking it was easier to throw away severed cars and broken pieces into a hole, while trying to remove other cars.

They may have been acting rationally as Chinese, thinking that broken things should be disposed of quickly.

However efficient that may be, tearing apart the driver's compartment would hinder the investigation of the cause of the accident.

Furthermore, it seemed contradictory that they disposed of the small driver's compartment and car, but left the other cars as they were.

Afterthought:

The news story in the Asahi Shimbun that the driver's compartment was buried in a hole made major headlines in Japan, which were later spread in China via the Internet. Other Japanese media also reported the news.

Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, posted articles from the Asahi Shimbun and other foreign media and retransmitted the news.

I heard that a Chinese reporter asked the Railways Ministry official at a news conference in Wenzhou on July 26 why they had buried the car.

Criticism against the authorities immediately increased after they stopped rescue efforts in only half a day and a survivor was found after the train cars were removed.

Apparently stung by such criticisms, the authorities started digging out remains of the buried driver's compartment and car.

The government formed a special investigation team for the accident.

In general, freedom of the press is not given in China, under the monopolistic regime of the Chinese Communist Party, and is it difficult to criticize the government.

However, as far as the latest accident is concerned, Chinese media critically reported the Railways Ministry's measures, which helped the information to spread widely, reaching many people.

It prompted the government to carry out an investigation, digging out the driver's compartment.

It also led the authorities, which initially emphasized a "natural disaster" as the cause, to admit existence of "human errors" such as defect in the signal system and failure of an official to send a warning.

Furthermore, Premier Wen Jiabao visited the site and promised "a fair and transparent investigation." He also vowed he will make the investigation entirely open.

I have never seen such a development in China.

I feel I have witnessed the moment that public opinion influenced the powerful government.

By ATSUSHI OKUDERA / Correspondent
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The front car of the destroyed D301 high-speed train before it is crushed and buried by workers. The photo was taken soon after 5 a.m. on July 24. (Photo by Atsushi Okudera)

The front car of the destroyed D301 high-speed train before it is crushed and buried by workers. The photo was taken soon after 5 a.m. on July 24. (Photo by Atsushi Okudera)

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  • The front car of the destroyed D301 high-speed train before it is crushed and buried by workers. The photo was taken soon after 5 a.m. on July 24. (Photo by Atsushi Okudera)
  • The destroyed front car of the high-speed train numbered D301 that rammed another train lies under the elevated train track. The photo was taken shortly after 5 a.m. on July 24. (Photo by Atsushi Okudera)
  • A worker operates an excavator to crush the driver's compartment in the front car of the high-speed train shortly after 7:30 a.m. on July 24. (Photo by Atsushi Okudera)
  • Workers continue to crush the front car of the high-speed train using the excavator bucket, even after they pushed it into the hole. (Photo by Atsushi Okudera)

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