China jails 23 over Christmas disco fire

Authorities in central China have sentenced 23 people to prison terms of up to 13 years for a Christmas fire in a disco that killed 309 people, a court official said today.

Authorities in central China have sentenced 23 people to prison terms of up to 13 years for a Christmas fire in a disco that killed 309 people, a court official said today.

The Intermediate People’s Court in Luoyang, a city in Henan province, ended its trials last week but didn’t release rulings until judges had consulted with Government leaders.

Nine of the defendants were tried in another Luoyang court.

The longest sentence went to Wang Chengtai, a welder blamed for igniting the blaze in the basement of the Dongdu Commercial Building, a shopping mall in Luoyang, said a court official who gave only his surname, Zhao.

An investigation immediately after the accident said sparks from Wang’s welding torch set fire to wooden furniture stored in the basement. Wang and other workers escaped, but smoke suffocated guests at a Christmas party in the mall’s fourth-floor disco.

The fire was the second-deadliest since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, according to state media, and it came amid a series of fatal accidents that focused official attention on public safety.

‘‘The severe sentences given to them demonstrate the Chinese Government’s strong determination to stop the all-too-frequent occurrence of safety-related tragedies nationwide,’’ the Government-run Xinhua News Agency proclaimed in announcing the verdicts today.

Two managers of the Dongdu Commercial Building, Wang Ziliang and Wang Lei, were sentenced to nine years in prison, Zhao said. Local reports at the time said the building had failed 18 safety checks in two years.

Investigators blamed locked emergency exits for the heavy casualties. They said the exits were closed to prevent people from sneaking into the party without paying.

With emergency stairwells shut off, though, the only way out of the disco was a single elevator. Many of the bodies were discovered crowded around the locked stairwells.

Nine fire and safety officials from Luoyang received prison terms of seven years for negligence of duty and abuse of power, Zhao said. The others convicted were mall employees, including three identified in earlier news reports as unlicensed welders.

The trials ended August 14 in the Luoyang Intermediate People’s Court and a lower-level court.

The blaze was the deadliest in a string of accidents that have roused public outrage and stirred Chinese leaders to action in recent months.

Two days after the blaze, hundreds of family members and friends of those killed marched on Luoyang city hall to demand officials accept responsibility for not enforcing safety laws. Police did not interfere.

Public anger boiled over again following a March explosion at a schoolhouse that killed 42 children and teachers.

With angry postings appearing in Internet chat rooms faster than Government censors could erase them, Premier Zhu Rongji made a rare apology on national television for failing to protect the public. Zhu promised stiff punishment for officials who don’t improve safety.

Two weeks ago, 20 employees of a tin mine and 70 other people were arrested for what authorities say was a plot to cover up a July 17 accident that killed at least 81 tin miners workers in southeastern China, official media reported.

Industrial accidents have killed more than 47,000 people in China during the first

six months of this year, according to Xinhua.

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