Twenty-one people were killed when extremely cold weather struck during an ultramarathon in rugged Gansu Province, northwest China, sparking public outrage on Sunday over the lack of planning to ’emergency.
The 60-plus mile race kicked off on Saturday in a scenic area on a bend in the Yellow River, known for its sheer cliffs and rocky columns. The route would take runners through canyons and hills on a barren plateau at an elevation of over 3,300 feet.
The race started at 9 a.m. (9 p.m. ET) with runners dressed in t-shirts and shorts in an overcast sky, according to photographs posted on the Yellow River Stone Forest region’s social media account at Jingtai, a county under the jurisdiction of Baiyin. city.
Around noon on Saturday, a mountainous part of the race was affected by hail, freezing rain and gales that caused temperatures to drop, Baiyin officials said at a press briefing on Sunday.
“The rain was getting heavier and heavier,” said Mao Shuzhi, who was about 15 miles from the race at the time.
Shivering with cold, she turned around before the high altitude section, due to previous bad experiences with hypothermia.
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“At first I regretted a bit, thinking maybe it was just a passing downpour, but when I saw the strong winds and later rains through my hotel room window, I thought. felt so lucky that I made the decision, ”Mao told Reuters.
A massive rescue effort has been launched, with more than 1,200 rescuers dispatched, aided by thermal imaging drones, radar detectors and demolition equipment, according to state media.
A total of 172 people took part in the race. As of Sunday, 151 participants had been confirmed safe and sound. A final missing runner was found dead at 9:30 a.m. Sunday (9:30 p.m. ET), bringing the death toll to 21, state media reported.
Jingtai County experienced a low of 43 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday, excluding the wind chill.
Baiyin, including Jingtai, is expected to experience moderate to strong winds from Friday evening to Saturday, according to the China Meteorological Administration in Beijing.
A separate report released on the provincial weather services website Thursday predicted a “significant” drop in temperature in most parts of Gansu, including Baiyin, through Sunday.
“It was very hot the day before the race, and although the weather forecast indicated that it would be windy and moderate rain on Saturday in Baiyin, everyone thought it would be mild,” Mao said. “It’s dry in northwest China.”
The deaths have sparked public outrage on Chinese social media, with anger mainly directed at the Baiyin government and dissatisfaction with the lack of contingency planning.
“Why didn’t the government read the weather forecast and do a risk assessment?” a commentator wrote. “It’s totally a man-made calamity. Even though the weather is unexpected, where were the contingency plans?”
During the press briefing, Baiyin officials bowed and apologized, saying they were saddened by the tragic deaths of the runners and should be blamed.
“The wind is too strong, our thermal blankets have been torn,” wrote a runner in a WeChat chat room to which Mao belonged.
Many of the runners had suffered from hypothermia and got lost in the high winds and heavy rain, according to screenshots taken by Mao of the messages in the chat room.
“A few are unconscious and froth in their mouths,” wrote another runner.
The Gansu provincial government has set up an investigative team to further examine the cause of death, the People’s Daily reported.