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At Least 37 Die In China Stampede

A lantern festival marking the end of China's Lunar New Year celebrations erupted into a stampede Thursday, killing at least 37 people and injuring 15, authorities said.

Many of the victims suffocated in the accident in Miyun County, a northern suburb of the Chinese capital, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Officials from President Hu Jintao on down immediately expressed "deep concern." The mayor of Beijing and the region's Communist Party chief went to the scene to supervise.

The prompt involvement of senior leaders was in line with China's new promise to keep people safe, including doing more to prevent disasters.

Revelers had gathered at for the annual Lantern Festival at popular Mihong Park when, at 7:45 p.m., someone tripped on a bridge in a crowded area and started a chain reaction, said Wu Kun, a spokesman for the Beijing city government.

"One person fell down on a grate in the park and caused many people to fall down. There was a stampede," Wu said. "It was a lot of people. I'm not sure how many. These things are packed," he told The Associated Press early Friday.

At least 37 people were killed and 15 injured but Wu said there could be more dead.

The park, the size of four football fields, was dark and nearly deserted early Friday. Its concrete-and-metal bridge, over a frozen river, appeared damaged and was littered with jewelry, bits of broken plastic and dried wax from lanterns. There was no visible presence of police, emergency personnel or injured people. Darkened red lanterns hung outside the park.

Ge Jing, a street vendor who hawks roast meat, said he had noticed the park filling up rapidly with people in the afternoon.

"I told my wife and child not to come tonight because I knew it would be too crowded," he said. "Such a terrible accident."

Inside nearby Miyun County Hospital, bodies lay covered with white sheets in a lobby area. Police barred all visitors from the building as ambulances hurried back and forth. Distraught relatives emerged through the main doors and told of the heartbreaking pastiche they had just left behind.

"It's a horrible scene in there. There are more than 30 dead bodies inside," said Zhao Jingfu, whose sister-in-law died. "My heart is in pain," he said, fighting back tears. Others emerging, who didn't give their names, said there weren't enough doctors to treat the injured.

Premier Wen Jiabao ordered local authorities to find out how the accident happened and "to try their best to save the injured and make suitable arrangement for the families of the dead."

The Lantern Festival - a nationwide festival of lights - marks the last night of the Lunar New Year, which Chinese started celebrating Jan. 22.

Hundreds of Chinese have been killed in car accidents across the country during the festivities as hundreds of millions travel to ancestral homes and back to major cities.

Miyun County, about 45 miles north of central Beijing, is the site of one of the largest reservoirs in China and a key supply of water to the Chinese capital. It is technically within the administrative limits of Beijing, which is actually a large district that includes the city and sprawling surrounding areas.

By Audra Ang

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