FENGHUANG -- The death toll from a bridge collapse in central China's Hunan Province has risen to 36 as of midday Wednesday with at least 23 others still missing, rescuers said.
Rescuers search for survivors from the ruins of a collapsed bridge in Fenghuang County, Central China's Hunan Province August 13, 2007. The bridge spanning the Tuojiang River collapsed, killing 36 with at least 23 others still missing. [Newsphoto]
More than 120 workers were removing steel scaffoldings when all the four arches of the 328-meter-long stone bridge fell in Fenghuang, a popular tourist destination.
The bridge, over the Tuojiang River and part of a national highway, might also have killed some swimmers and passers-by although their number is unknown, said rescuers.
Sixty-four workers have escaped or been rescued. Twenty-two of them were injured and are receiving treatment in hospital. Most of the survivors were working at either end of the bridge.
Premier Wen Jiabao yesterday ordered the local governments and relevant departments to "do their utmost" in conducting the rescue operation and handling the aftermath of the accident.
He warned that "those who are responsible for the tragedy" will face the full force of the law.
Li Yizhong, head of the State Administration of Work Safety who reached the site with the minister of communications and vice-minister of construction yesterday morning, urged for intensified efforts to rescue victims and treat the injured.
More than 1,500 rescuers were searching for the victims, and 11 excavators were used to remove debris.
A report on www.china.com.cn said the massive piles of debris hindered the rescue operation.
The bridge, which had four 65-meter-long arches, was part of the highway linking Fenghuang and Daxing Airport of Tongren in neighboring Guizhou Province.
Construction of the 42-meter-high structure was almost complete except for dismantling the steel scaffoldings, which started last month.
It was scheduled to open to traffic at the end of this month.
"We didn't see any sign of a problem before the tragedy," said a worker at a site close to the bridge who did not want to be named. "I heard the sounds of the crash and before I could realize what was happening, I saw the bridge fall slowly and become a pile of rocks."
Sitting by the Tuojiang River, 29-year-old Tian Jing was in shock. He came to work at the bridge from Tuanjie village in Fenghuang a month earlier.
"I was dismantling the scaffolding when some pebbles fell," he recalled. Minutes later, he heard someone shouting "the bridge is falling down". Tian ran for cover but his fellow villagers were not as lucky.
"Three were buried in the debris," he said.
According to Xiao Rucheng, professor at Shanghai-based Tongji University, scaffolding is "critical" to the building of an arch bridge.
"Even issues like which part of the scaffolding should be dismantled first can affect the safety of an arch bridge," he told China Daily.
The project, with an estimated cost of 12 million yuan ($1.6 million), is undertaken by Fengda company in the Tujia and Miao autonomous prefecture, with the provincial road and bridge construction company as the contractor.
Local police have taken construction manager Xia Youjia and project supervisor Jiang Ping into custody for investigation. All technical data about the bridge have been sealed for examination.
Xiao said that the accident, to some extent, could have resulted from the country's "too-fast speed in bridge design and construction".
Construction workers are usually forced to rush to meet deadlines which may lead to structural flaws, he said.
The search for the missing is still underway, according to the local rescue headquarters.