Fatal kindergarten bus fire was arson: China

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Fatal kindergarten bus fire was arson: China

The school bus inferno last month in eastern China that claimed the lives of 10 Korean kindergartners was a case of arson by the driver, who was about to be laid off by his employer, Chinese police concluded Friday.

Parents of the dead children don’t buy those conclusions.

The Chinese driver died on the spot with 11 kindergartners, 10 of whom were Korean and one Chinese. One Chinese teacher was severely injured and died shortly afterward.

The children attended a kindergarten attached to the Weihai Zhongshi International School in Weihai, Shandong Province, which was founded in 2007 by a Korean businessman. The majority of students in both institutes are Korean.

After a three-week probe, Chinese authorities said at a press conference Friday that the May 9 fire started on the floor of the bus behind the driver’s seat. A lighter was discovered nearby. Gasoline residue was found in several spots on the bus, and was used as an accelerant.

Authorities said they ruled out any chance that the fire was caused by a traffic accident or faulty electric equipment on the bus, without explaining further.

“The driver’s overtime and night shift allowance had been suspended, angering him,” reported China’s official Xinhua News Agency, “causing him to buy gasoline to set the fire.” Police said the driver was told by his company the day before the arson that he’d soon be laid off.

In a separate press meeting in Weihai, relatives of the Korean children who died said they did not accept the investigation results.

“There are many doubtful aspects regarding the announcement,” Kim Mi-seok, a leader of the relatives’ group, was quoted as saying by Yonhap. Kim objected to the Chinese police’s statement that the fire started behind the driver’s seat, claiming that photos and video clips showed the fire starting on the other side of the bus.

Another parent, Lee Jeong-kyu, urged transparency in the investigation, saying that Chinese authorities had many hours worth of CCTV footage from the scene but showed them less than 5 minutes.

“China is telling us that the driver was feeble-minded,” said Lee, “but he was actually very bright and always greeted all the children and parents.”

“I’ve known him over the past two to three years. He’s not the kind of guy who would do that to our children.”

Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the alleged arson “utterly appalling” in a statement Friday, adding that it expected the Chinese government to “do their best until the very end” to compensate the bereaved families and support their funerals. The ministry vowed to cooperate with its Chinese counterpart and communicate with the families through the Korean Consulate in Qingdao.

The school bus was passing through a tunnel in Huancui District in Weihai, a port city in eastern Shandong, at around 9 a.m. on May 9 when the vehicle burst into flames. The bus was on its way to the kindergarten, about an hours’ drive away. The tunnel was packed with passenger cars but no one else was killed.

BY SHIN KYUNG-JIN, LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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