Twenty-one people were killed when extremely cold weather experienced extremely cold weather during an ultramarathon in harsh Gansu Province, northwest China, sparking public outrage on Sunday over the lack of contingency planning.
The more than 100 km long race started on Saturday in a picturesque area on a curve of the Yellow River known for its steep cliffs and rock pillars. The route would take runners through canyons and hills on a dry plateau at an altitude of over 300 meters.
The race started at 9:00 a.m. (9:00 p.m. CET) with runners in t-shirts and shorts under a cloudy sky. This is evident from photos posted on the social media account of the Yellow River Stone Forest area in Jingtai, a county under the jurisdiction of Baiyin City.
Around noon on Saturday, a mountainous section of the race was hit by hail, freezing rain and storms, which led to a drop in temperature, officials from Baiyin told a press conference on Sunday.
“The rain was getting heavier,” said Mao Shuzhi, who was about 15 miles in the race at the time.
Shivering in the cold, she turned in front of the high altitude section, having previously had a bad experience with hypothermia.
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“At first I felt a little bit of regret and thought it might just have been a temporary shower, but when I later saw the strong winds and rain through my hotel room window, I felt so happy that I made the decision,” Mao said Reuters.
According to the state media, massive rescue operations have been initiated with over 1,200 rescue workers deployed, assisted by thermal imaging drones, radar detectors and demolition devices.
A total of 172 people took part in the race. As of Sunday, 151 participants had been confirmed as safe. A final missing runner was found dead Sunday at 9:30 a.m. (9:30 p.m. ET), bringing the death toll to 21, state media reported.
Jingtai County recorded a low of 43 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday with no wind chill.
According to the Beijing Meteorological Bureau, Baiyin, including Jingtai, should have moderate to strong winds Friday evening through Saturday.
A separate report on the provincial weather services website on Thursday predicted a “significant” drop in temperature in most parts of Gansu, including Baiyin, by Sunday.
“It was very hot the day before the race and although the weather forecast said there would be wind and moderate rain in Baiyin on Saturday, everyone believed it would be mild,” said Mao. “It’s dry in northwest China.”
The deaths sparked public outrage on Chinese social media. Most of the anger was at the Baiyin government and the misfortune about the lack of contingency planning.
“Why didn’t the government read the weather forecast or do a risk assessment?” One commentator wrote. “This is a man-made disaster. Even if the weather is unexpected, where were the contingency plans?”
At the press conference, Baiyin officials bowed and apologized, saying they were saddened by the tragic death of the runners and should be blamed.
“The wind is too strong, our thermal blankets are torn to pieces,” wrote a runner in a WeChat chat room that Mao was a member of.
Many of the runners had suffered from hypothermia and got lost in strong winds and heavy rain, as screenshots of Mao on the news in the chat room showed.
“Some are passed out and foaming in their mouths,” wrote another runner.
The Gansu provincial government has set up an investigation team to investigate the cause of death, the People’s Daily reported.