Bus fire in China kills dozens of people

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - A long-distance bus taking tourists to Mao Zedong's hometown in southern China erupted in flames, killing more than two dozen people onboard, according to official statements and news reports on Saturday (March 23).

The diesel-powered bus was going from Henan province in central China to Hunan province in the south, and the fire broke out near Changde, a city in Hunan, on Friday night, officials said in an account released through state-run media. The flames swiftly consumed the bus, and at least 26 of the 56 people aboard died, apparently trapped by the flames.

Twenty-eight other people were injured and treated at three hospitals, including five who were said to be in serious condition.

Other details of the accident were unclear, and investigators were trying to determine the fire's cause. One Chinese news website, Shangyou News, cited a survivor who said that the bus had been taking tourists to Shaoshan, the small city where Mao Zedong was born, and that the fire broke out at the back of the bus, quickly overcoming passengers who did not have time to escape.

Two drivers survived and were detained while the police and safety officials investigated, the Changde government said.

The accident was another jarring reminder of China's shaky safety record, coming soon after a blast at a chemical plant in eastern China on Thursday that killed at least 64 people.

Deaths on Chinese roads have risen with the rapid expansion of expressways and car ownership. The government has responded with tighter enforcement of speed limits, bans on drunken driving and stricter vehicle inspections.

Even so, nearly 64,000 people died in transportation accidents in China in 2017, mostly on roads, according to government statistics. The real toll could be much higher: Past studies by safety experts have found that Chinese police statistics seriously underestimated road deaths, and the World Health Organization said in 2016 that about 260,000 people died on Chinese roads every year.

Last year, there were five road accidents in China in which 10 or more people died, a decline from 2017, the Ministry of Public Security said in January.