BEIJING — An overloaded school minibus crashed head-on with a truck in rural western China on Wednesday, killing at least 18 kindergarten children on their way to class, officials said.
Sixty-two children and two adults were crowded into the bus, which had just nine seats, officials said. The driver and a teacher died along with the children, aged 5 and 6, said the director of the provincial work safety emergency office, surnamed Fan.
News of the crash ignited public anger across China, with hundreds of thousands of people venting on Twitter-like microblogs, highlighting an underfunded education system that especially shortchanges students in remote areas.
"This accident says a lot about the problems with the government's role of monitoring school safety," said Liu Shanying, expert in public administration at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "It involves the education, traffic safety and work safety authorities. They should all be blamed for this. They should all be held responsible."
"The kindergarten van was carrying seven times as many passengers as it should have been, which meant the kindergarten should have bought seven times as many vans," Liu said.
The collision with the truck in China's Gansu province left the orange school bus a crumpled and twisted wreckage. Authorities blamed the overloading for the accident, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Gao Shaobo, head of traffic police in Zhengning county, where the kindergarten is located, said that 20 people had died and 44 were still hospitalized – two in critical condition and 12 with serious injuries.
The impact of the crash drove the front of the minibus back into the seats, ripped open the top and buckled the sides of the vehicle, while the front of the truck was slightly damaged. Xinhua reported that the truck was loaded with coal, but Gao told state broadcaster CCTV that it was used to transport stones and was empty at the time of the accident.
The bus was on its way to the Little Doctor Kindergarten on the outskirts of Qingyang city after picking up the children when the accident happened, Gao said. "The van was driving on the wrong side of the street. Both the truck and the van were going at high speeds at the time," he said. The two people in the truck were not injured, and police detained the driver, he said.
The bus was run by the kindergarten, Xinhua said, citing Li Yuanqing, a government press official with Zhengning county.
Such overcrowding on school buses is common in China, and accidents happen frequently because of poorly maintained vehicles and poor driving habits. State television aired a story in September about a minivan with eight seats that was stopped while carrying 64 preschoolers.
Wednesday's school bus accident appeared to be one of the worst in China in recent years. In December, 14 children died when their school bus plunged into a creek in heavy fog near the central city of Hengyang. Crashes have become a feature of Chinese life as safety habits have failed to catch up to the rapid growth in road traffic amid the buoyant economy.
Chinese Twitter-like microblogs exploded in rage after Wednesday's accident, registering more than 800,000 posts within hours of the news.
Particular ire was directed at government spending. Many made comparisons to the quality of U.S. school buses, some by attaching a photo purporting to show a Hummer smashed under the rear fender of a hardly dented school bus in Indianapolis. "Look at American school buses. ... Our school buses are irresponsible when it comes to children's lives," ran the heading attached to many posts.
"Won't this make the government wake up?" Zhang Zhen, an editor with the popular Dahe Bao newspaper, said on Sina Corp.'s Weibo microblog service. He said the government should divert funds from public money spent on overseas travel, cars and receptions "to give middle, primary and nursery schools in poor areas more strong, decent and spacious school vehicles."
Beijing has made a concerted effort to rebuild and improve a public education system that had withered with the collapse of centrally planned socialism in the 1990s. Central government spending on education has steadily grown in recent years, rising a projected 16 percent this year to 296 billion yuan ($46 billion), about three-quarters of it given to local governments.
The overall figures mask great disparities, with rural areas and small cities like Qingyang chronically short of funds. Some local governments lack funds to pay teachers, who in egregious cases have charged parents extra fees to teach their children the required curriculum.
Little Doctor Kindergarten, however, falls outside the formal school system. Privately run, the school serves mostly children from farming families, according to the education bureau of Zhengning county.
Qingyang and its surrounding rural areas have seen fast, chaotic growth in recent years. The area sits amid arid hills along the middle reaches of the Yellow River, where Chinese civilization first flourished but which is now known for its poverty. Rural incomes in the region average about 3,660 yuan ($570) per person, about one-fourth the level of city dwellers. More than 120,000 rural residents in the area lack access to clean drinking water.
Associated Press writer Charles Hutzler and researcher Zhao Liang contributed to this report.
The slideshow below shows AP photographs documenting daily life in China:
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the headline inaccurately stated that 17, rather than 18, children were killed in the accident.