Karamay Theatre Fire

A total of 288 children were killed in a 1994 theatre fire in northwest China mainly because they were told to remain seated to allow officials to leave after the blaze broke out, according to an expose by a journalist.

A total of 323 people were killed in the fire in the oil town of Karamay in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang on Dec. 8, 1994. The high death toll was then blamed on locked exits and the failure of officials to check safety facilities beforehand, and to organise effective evacuation.

WHEN the first flames flared around the theatre’s stage, many of the excited Chinese children watching must have thought it was all part of the show.

Within minutes 288 of them were dead, a tragedy that has haunted their parents for more than a decade but was forgotten by many as China began its headlong rush to prosperity.

It is not forgotten any more, thanks to a band of internet campaigners who have exposed the shameful truth: the schoolchildren perished because they were ordered to sit down in their theatre seats so that Communist party officials could leave first.

The revelations have prompted millions of Chinese to discuss the incident in recent weeks and forced the state-controlled media to acknowledge it for the first time.

China ordered nationwide safety inspections today after the latest in a series of deadly fires killed at least 300 children and teachers watching a variety show.

The fire swept through a theater Thursday in Karamay, 1,600 miles northwest of Beijing. An initial investigation indicated that it may have been caused by a short circuit, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

It was the third major fire in two weeks, leading to expressions of concern that the rush to modernize that led to hurried construction may have resulted in dangerous buildings.

The Government order today called for the immediate closing of businesses that fail to meet safety standards. Public safety officials were instructed to examine fire prevention plans more carefully before approving new projects.