Twenty-one people were killed when extremely cold weather struck during an ultramarathon on Saturday in rugged Gansu province in northwestern China, state media reported on Sunday, sparking public outrage over the lack of contingency planning.
The 100-km (62-mile) race began from a lush tourist site at a bend in the Yellow River, China’s second-longest. The route would take runners through deep canyons and undulating hills on an arid plateau at an elevation of more than 1,000 metres (3,300 feet).
The race kicked off on Saturday morning with runners clad in t-shirts and shorts under overcast skies, according to photographs posted on the social media account of the Yellow River Stone Forest scenic 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 gales that caused temperatures to plummet, officials from Baiyin told a news briefing on Sunday.
A massive rescue effort was initiated, with over 1,200 rescuers dispatched, assisted by thermal-imaging drones, radar detectors and demolition equipment, according to Xinhua.
A landslide following the severe weather also hampered the rescue work, said officials from Baiyin, about 1,000 km (620 miles) west of the Chinese capital Beijing.
A total of 172 people took part in the race. By Sunday, 151 participants had been confirmed safe, while a last missing runner was found dead at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, state media reported.
Jingtai county saw a low of 6 degrees Celsius (43 degrees Fahrenheit) on Saturday excluding wind chill.
Baiyin – including Jingtai – was expected to see moderate to strong winds from Friday night through Saturday, according to the China Meteorological Administration in Beijing in a report late on Friday.
A separate report on the website of provincial weather services on Thursday also predicted a “significant” drop in temperature in most parts of Gansu – including Baiyin – through Sunday.
The deaths sparked public outrage on Chinese social media, with anger mainly directed at the Baiyin government and unhappiness over the lack of contingency planning.
“Why didn’t the government read the weather forecast and do a risk assessment?” one commentator wrote.
“This is totally a man-made calamity. Even if the weather is unexpected, where were the contingency plans?”
At the news briefing on Sunday, Baiyin officials bowed and apologised, saying they were saddened by the tragic deaths of the runners and that they were to be blamed.
The Gansu provincial government has set up an investigation team to further look into the cause of the deaths, the People’s Daily reported.