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Chinese bullet-train crash raises safety concerns

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Emergency workers and civilians carry an injured passenger from the wreckage of a train crash in Wenzhou in east China's Zhejiang province, Saturday, July 23, 2011. A Chinese bullet train lost power after being struck by lightning and was hit from behind by another train, knocking two of its carriages off a bridge, killing at least 16 people and injuring 89, state media reported. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Emergency workers and civilians search for passengers from the wreckage of a train crash in Wenzhou in east China's Zhejiang province, Saturday, July 23, 2011. A Chinese bullet train lost power after being struck by lightning and was hit from behind by another train, knocking two of its carriages off a bridge, killing at least 16 people and injuring 89, state media reported. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Emergency workers and others carry an injured passenger, at left, from the wreckage of one of two train carriages knocked off a bridge following a train crash in Wenzhou in east China's Zhejiang province, Saturday, July 23, 2011. A Chinese bullet train lost power after being struck by lightning and was hit from behind by another train, knocking two of its carriages off a bridge, killing at least 16 people and injuring 89, state media reported. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Emergency workers and civilians carry the body of a passenger killed in a train crash in Wenzhou in east China's Zhejiang province, Saturday, July 23, 2011. A Chinese bullet train lost power after being struck by lightning and was hit from behind by another train, knocking two of its carriages off a bridge, killing at least 16 people and injuring 89, state media reported. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    RETRANSMISSION FOR ALTERNATIVE CROP - Emergency workers and people work to help passengers from the wreckage of train after two carriages from a high-speed train derailed and fell off a bridge in Wenzhou in east China's Zhejiang province Saturday July 23, 2011. A Chinese news agency says there is no immediate word on casualties.(AP Photo) CHINA OUT
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BEIJING>> A toddler was found alive Sunday in the wreckage of two bullet trains that collided in eastern China the day before, an accident that intensified concerns about the country’s high-speed rail system.

The official New China News Agency said a boy was found unconscious by firefighters inside the wreckage Sunday afternoon and taken to a hospital.

Three senior railway officials were fired in response to the collision, which killed at least 43 people and injured more than 200 in Wenzhou, a city in Zhejiang province.

The accident took place Saturday night when a train from Hangzhou stalled after being hit by lightning, and then was rear-ended by a train originating in Beijing. The violent crash sent four carriages from the oncoming train tumbling 66 feet off an elevated track.

Rescuers found hundreds of terrified passengers trapped under debris.

"Please save us," a passenger wrote on a Twitter-like blog. "The train is leaning toward one side now. And it’s totally locked. The first few carriages hit each other."

Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao called for an "all-out effort" to rescue passengers and sent Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang to the scene of the accident, state media reported.

Chinese Internet users posted millions of comments online mourning victims, while also questioning the safety of the national high-speed rail system and calling for a thorough investigation.

"The railway minister should be required to resign his post immediately; don’t go blaming lightning for this incident, the one who should be blamed most is you!" read a comment translated into English by the website ChinaGeeks.

Authorities have so far been unable to explain why the oncoming train did not stop in time and whether engineers anticipated vulnerabilities to lightning strikes.

The disaster will no doubt invite more scrutiny of the already embattled Ministry of Railways.

The three officials who were fired Sunday included the head of the Shanghai rail bureau and its Communist Party chief, whose jurisdiction included one of the trains.

The ministry was rocked by scandal in February when its chief, Liu Zhijun, was dismissed after allegedly taking $125 million in kickbacks tied to shoddy construction work.

Two months later, the ministry reduced maximum speeds along the network to cut costs and as a safety precaution.

China’s high-speed rail system, the largest in the world, has attracted controversy for years because its engineering is alleged to be have been copied from European and Japanese technology and because the national track network was laid in record time.

Officials have touted the country’s rail technology as the world’s most advanced. But the marketing campaign, so far, has not gone well. The recently opened Beijing-Shanghai line featuring newer and faster trains than those that collided in Wenzhou has been beset by power failures and delays in recent weeks. The $32.5-billion line was meant to be a symbol of China’s engineering prowess.

Whether travelers will now think twice about taking the train remains to be seen. The accident Saturday has struck the public as something of a national embarrassment. Chinese blogs have been noting that Japan hasn’t had a bullet train-related fatality since its service opened in 1964. High-speed rail was introduced to China in 2007.

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(Tommy Yang in the Times Beijing bureau contributed to this report.)

 

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