BEIJING (AP) At least 29 people were killed after a bridge under construction in a popular Chinese tourist town collapsed as more than 100 workers were removing scaffolding, the government said Aug. 7.
At that point, 86 people had been rescued, including 22 who were injured when the bridge spanning the Tuo River in central China’s Hunan province collapsed Aug. 6, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Five were in critical condition.
It was not clear how many people were missing. An estimated 123 workers were at the site at the time of the collapse, but rescuers were trying to come up with an exact count.
The cause of the collapse of the 880 ft. (268 m)bridge was under investigation, the Hunan Administration of Work Safety said in a statement posted to the official Gov.cn Web site. Premier Wen Jiabao ordered a thorough investigation into the accident, China Central Television reported.
The accident came less than two weeks after the collapse of a bridge in Minnesota that drew attention to aging transport infrastructure in the United States.
The 140 ft. (42 m) high bridge in Hunan’s Fenghuang county had four decorative stone arches and was scheduled to open at the end of this month, the administration said. It collapsed as workers were removing scaffolding from its facade, it said.
Surrounded by lush mountains and rice paddies, the ancient city of Fenghuang is a well-known tourist spot and home to the Miao and Tujia ethnic minorities. It is also famed for traditional stilt houses lining the Tuo River.
China Central Television showed bulldozers plowing through the rubble, overturning chunks of stone and concrete mixed in a tangle of steel reinforcement bars. News photos showed anxious and weeping villagers waiting for news about their loved ones.
Hunan Governor Zhou Qiang was at the scene overseeing rescue efforts, Xinhua said.
Most of the people working on the bridge were local farmers, the agency said.
"I was riding a bike with my husband and we had just passed under the bridge and were about 50 meters away when it collapsed," said a witness who would only gave her surname, Wu. "There was a huge amount of dust that came up and didn’t clear for about 10 minutes."
Xinhua quoted a villager whose home was just a dozen meters from the site and had been watching the grisly rescue effort. "Their arms and legs were broken, only linked with skin," Yang Long was quoted as saying.
Wu, a cleaning lady at a local hotel, said there were houses underneath the bridge and she had heard that friends who lived there had died but wasn’t clear how many.
The safety administration said the bridge was designed by the Hunan Huagang Transportation Design Institute in the provincial capital of Changsha.
Xinhua said the bridge was a $1.6 million project by the Fengda company of western Hunan, without giving the company’s full name.
An employee of a Fengda Road Construction Co. in Fenghuang said he was not clear if the bridge project was his company’s or not. He refused to give his name.
Xinhua identified the contractor as the state-owned Hunan Road and Bridge Construction (Group) Ltd. Co., or RBC.
RBC construction manager Xia Youjia and project supervisor Jiang Ping were detained for questioning, it said.
Construction accidents in China are frequent, with contractors often opting for shoddy materials to cut costs and using migrant laborers with little or no safety training.
The Fenghuang collapse is among the worst in recent memory. On June 15, a bridge in south China’s Guangdong province collapsed when a cargo vessel loaded with sand rammed into it, killing nine people. That bridge was built in 1988 and spanned the Xijiang River, a major tributary of the Pearl River.
In January 1999 a pedestrian bridge spanning the Qi River in southwestern China’s Sichuan province collapsed three years after it was built. Forty people died and another 14 were injured.
Following the accident, a local county deputy party secretary was sentenced to death for accepting a bribe from a childhood friend in exchange for the bridge-building contract.
The accident highlighted concerns among Chinese leaders and the general public about breakneck development and pervasive corruption among officials.
In its annual report on road safety last year, the Ministry of Communications categorized 6,300 of the country’s bridges as dangerous because of serious damage to their "structural components," the China Daily newspaper reported.
The newspaper report didn’t give specifics but quoted Xiao Rucheng, secretary general of China’s Institute of Bridge and Structural Engineering, as saying many of the country’s new bridges were being built too quickly and were poorly designed.
The newspaper quoted Xiao as saying that China should "learn a lesson from the Mississippi bridge and accelerate the inspection of unsafe bridges," referring to the Aug. 1 collapse of the bridge in Minnesota that killed at least nine people.
The China Daily also ran an editorial Aug. 7 saying rising traffic levels made the need for nationwide bridge repairs and upgrades an urgent issue.
"If left unrepaired these bridges may crumble at any time, (wreaking) economic havoc and possibly claiming human lives," it said, without mentioning the Fenghuang disaster, which wasn’t reported by state media until late Aug. 6.