“Everybody keep quiet. Don’t move. Let the leaders go first.”
This short phrase, uttered on December 8th, 1994 in Karamay, a small city on the northern edge of Xinjiang, China, still haunts the city. As the years pass it gets buried further and further back in everyone’s memory in hopes that one day it may actually be forgotten but for now the memory lingers. Fourteen years ago a large fire broke out in a local Karamay theater killing 325 people, 288 of them school children, resulting in one of the worst and most controversial fire disasters in China’s history. It’s not a subject many people I’ve met here like to dwell on, obviously, but it is well known as the one black mark that tarnishes the beautifully short history of this town.
A documentary film has been made about this fire. Read about it here…
It started as a simple performance at the Karamay Friendship Theater, a special bonus for those primary students who had proven themselves to be the best and the brightest in the city. This event was so special in fact, that many high-ranking city officials and Party members made an appearance. What began as a happy celebration ended in disaster though when a short-circuit in a light caught the scenery on fire, quickly engulfing the stage with flames.
This much of the story everybody agrees with, but from here on is where the controversy lies. According to survivors, a woman who had either helped organize the performance or was a government official immediately stood up and told everybody to be quiet, sit still, and let the leaders go first.
Unfortunately, by the time the leaders had finished exiting the fire had spread out beyond control. For some unknown reason the emergency exit doors were never ordered to be unlocked and worst of all the fire station was never alerted.
The lives of 288 children and 36 adults, mostly school teachers, were lost that day and it is a scar this city still bears in the faces of those survivors who were severely burned by the blaze. They’re all in their 20’s now and usually don’t walk around on the streets much to save their pride, but I have seen them occasionally.
A government court reacted immediately from what I understand, convicting 14 people, 4 of them high-ranking officials, and giving them jail time for fleeing the scene and failing to call the fire station. These details were never made public, of course, and the only noticeable change to the average Chinese citizen was a nationwide safety inspection issued days after the firecompensation of up to US$8,000 they were never issued a public apology.
Not surprisingly, the details of this disaster were never disclosed until May of 2007 when a Chinese reporter for CCTV posted a documentary on his website that censors had banned for public broadcast.
International news organizations actually did run the story back in 1994, including an article in the New York Times, but the details there were sketchy and the focus of the article was primarily on the new safety inspections that had been ordered. After the internet expose, international media again flocked to the story, the most detailed article being written by Michael Sheridan of the UK Times.
As a resident of Karamay myself, I can see how it would be easy to forget something like this ever happened here. There was no moment of silence or official memorial gathering last Monday. One major complaint with residents here is that no memorial to this disaster has been constructed even though one has been promised for years. The only reminder of this incident is a white portion of the old theater that still stands on the edge of the People’s Square. You’d never know unless somebody told you, but this white-washed, unused building is actually the site of the darkest moment in this city’s history.
I wish to accomplish nothing by saying all this than to keep their memory alive. Not the controversy, but the memory of the 300 students and teachers who lost their lives in this city fourteen years ago.
The white building on the lower-right hand corner is the what is left of the theater.
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