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Chinese media reflect on tragedy at Taipei theme park

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After the blaze, the questions

On June 27 Taipei suffered its worst ever case of mass injury when fire at a water park injured 494 people. The cause of the blaze was a starch-based coloured powder – an ingredient which has been used in festivals in Asia for centuries.

Video from the fateful evening shows partygoers dancing in a cloud of coloured powder while a DJ performs on stage. Then, shortly after a cannon has delivered two new blasts of dust, it ignites into flames and engulfs the unsuspecting crowd.

Scientists have pointed out that dry starch powder – if evenly spread through the air by a machine – is highly flammable. In hot weather the vibrations from a large sound system could be enough to set the powder on fire. Lighting cigarettes could also do so.

So what does all this mean for mainland China, which has staged similar events and which is currently building dozens of amusement parks of its own? China’s initial reaction was to say Taiwanese public authorities were to blame for not issuing stricter guidelines over the use of coloured powder. Several newspaper commentaries pointed out it was a known flammable substance and that Taiwan – which is known for its so-called “coloured parties” – should have paid more attention to the danger it presents.

“This dust explosion is a warning light over Taiwanese public safety,” the People’s Daily wrote in an article that also reminded readers about the gas explosion that killed 32 people in Kaohsiung in the south of the island last year.

Other papers urged Chinese authorities to examine whether to ban events like the recent “colour run” in Beijing where people run 5 kilometres while bystanders throw the same type of powder at them.

A statement by that event’s organiser IMG say they have no connection with those who arranged the event at Taipei’s Formosa Fun Coast Water Park and that they have hosted 500 ‘colour runs’ around the world without incident.

“I’ve watched the video of the blast. They used a machine to spray powder in high densities into the crowd, which is totally different from what we do,” Shanghai Daily quoted an employee of IMG Beijing as saying.

However, the newspaper also reported that the host for this year’s Shanghai Colour Run, the Shanghai Oriental Sport Centre, had pulled out of the event in the wake of the Taipei tragedy. IMG said it was looking for another host.

The incident in Taipei also feeds into a greater fear about safety at theme parks on the mainland. This year began with a crush on the Bund in Shanghai which killed 36, while three people have been killed as result of being thrown from amusement park rides.

China spent $24 billion on theme park construction in 2014 according to AECOM, the Los Angeles engineering firm that specialises in such projects, and there are around 60 projects currently in the pipeline.

But there are concerns that Chinese developers don’t appreciate how long it should take to build a park and that safety could be sacrificed in the rush to turn a profit.

“A lot of them have never done this before. China doesn’t have a 50-year history of theme park operations,” the LA Times quoted Gary Goddard of Gary Goddard Entertainment as saying. Goddard’s firm is currently building a 250 acre Kingdom of Poseidon water park in Harbin. The newspaper pointed out that many Chinese developers prefer to have Western designers come up with concepts and plans but have local companies build the parks.

Qianjiang Evening News pointed out this week that Longshan Amusement Park in Zhejiang was conceptualised, funded, built and opened within eight months. “This accident exposes the risks that exists at parks which are built too fast,” it said.

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