Photographer captures big picture from centre of Shanghai tragedy

Photographer Guo Xianzhong barely escaped the crush on New Year’s Eve to capture vital images from the eye of the Shanghai disaster

A mainland photojournalist at the scene of the New Year’s Eve stampede in Shanghai sensed something was wrong minutes before the crush began.

Recalling his narrow brush with death, Guo Xianzhong, 36, a Southern Metropolis News photographer visiting from Guangzhou, said the Bund seemed overcrowded as he waited to ring in the new year.

Guo was able to escape the crush and the photographs and video he took from the centre of the stampede captured the incident in vivid detail, going viral online.

They offered a blow-by-blow account of the stampede before official accounts were released. They also helped to set the record straight about some misunderstandings, including claims that the stampede was linked to a scramble for coupons to a nearby nightclub.

“The place was definitely overcrowded, there were screams and cries. My instinct as a journalist told me something’s going to happen,” Guo said.

He said he climbed onto a rubbish bin, and from there managed to get on top of a wall beside the staircase where the stampede took place. That spot gave him not only safety from the crush but also a full view of what happened on the ground.

“In less than a minute, people started to fall on the ground where I was standing,” he said.

As more pedestrians flooded in, people piled up. In less than an hour, at least 36 people were dead and another 49 injured.

“In that situation, it makes no difference how strong you are. There is no way of escaping once you’re stuck there in the crowd. [The people] were just like fragile shoots of grass,” said Guo, who could not sleep that night because of persistent anxiety about the incident.

His photos showed that police officers were present and helping victims during the stampede.

“But there were too few of them,” he added.

Still, even if more police had been at the scene, the incident might not have been avoided completely, Guo said.

“The place was overcrowded with people … There should have been better management of the flow of people,” he said.

Guo was also among the 20 or so young people shouting at pedestrians to step back soon after people began falling to the ground. These people were hailed as heroes because their efforts prevented more people from being injured.

One of the young people, who identified himself only as Xiaojun, told the Xinmin Evening News that he and three friends joined others trying to warn people of the danger, yelling at the crowds to turn back.

Many people used online forums yesterday to praise Xiaojun and others for helping to restore order.

“This was a simple act but it saved people from danger. These kids did a great thing,” one person wrote. Another said: “I’m touched to see such behaviour.”

But Guo said he acted simply out of instinct. “Anybody would have done the same under that situation,” he said, adding that they decided to shout and wave together because they could not be heard alone over the noise of the crowd.

Xiaojun also brushed off suggestions that his actions deserved praise. “I did the right thing at the time. It was nothing,” he said.