The scene can only be described as horrific: On an otherwise unremarkable morning, a woman is riding up a shopping center escalator in central China with her son. When she reaches the top and begins to disembark, she steps onto a metal footplate covering the machinery. The plate collapses, dropping the woman into the gears. She shoves her child into the arms of two mall employees, and is crushed to death.
Security-camera video of the incident (Note: The video contains disturbing images.) hit Chinese social media late Sunday, hours after it occurred, with local media identifying the woman as Xiang Liujuan, 30. In a rapidly urbanizing country still plagued by shoddy construction standards and poor building maintenance, the news spread like wildfire.
But instead of an outpouring of sympathy for Xiang, or questions for the mall or government inspectors about why the escalator -- which was known to be missing some parts -- was still in operation, her family was initially met with a large measure of reproach, skepticism and blame from some official media outlets and Internet users.
"Pay Attention to This Life-Saving Button," the People's Daily advised, explaining to readers where the emergency stop button was located on escalators. Others, responding to a Web posting by Xiang's sister-in-law about the incident, questioned whether the family was publicizing the tragedy in an effort to extract financial compensation from the store, or had even "scripted" the event.
But as news of the Sunday morning incident in the city of Jingzhou, 130 miles west of Wuhan in Hubei province, spread, anger at the mall and safety inspectors mounted. "What brand was that escalator?" asked one commenter online. Another, describing the incident as heartbreaking, said the store must bear responsibility.
According to Xiang's sister-in-law, Xiang apparently was unaware of any problem with the escalator until she and her son had already stepped onto the moving staircase, which was still in motion and not blocked off in any way.
People questioned why the escalator was allowed to keep running or was not cordoned off if it posed a danger. Two employees, seen in the closed-circuit video circulated online, were standing at the top of the escalator, apparently trying to talk with Xiang as she and her son rode up.
They were the workers who helped Xiang's son escape the gears as his mother was crushed. (Xiang's husband was in the shopping center at the time of the incident but was on another floor when she was killed.) It was unclear whether the workers knew the footplate was insecure, though they are seen standing to the side of the metal panel, near the handrail of the escalator.
The Wuhan Evening News quoted an escalator expert as saying that the conveyors typically have safety mechanisms that should automatically stop the machinery if the metal plate is opened. It was unclear whether this escalator was equipped with such a feature.
The local safety inspection bureau told the Shanghai-based publication The Paper that there was no record of the escalator being under repair at the time of the accident. The state-run New China News Agency said local authorities were investigating.
Xiang's sister-in-law, in a post on the social media platform Weibo, appealed for help from the media, saying that after Xiang was killed, the shopping center continued to function as normal, with customers on lower floors oblivious to the incident and other possible dangers.
China has seen repeated reports of malfunctioning elevators and escalators killing or injuring people. Last September, a video of a student crushed by an elevator in the southern city of Xiamen was widely circulated online. In January, a doctor died after he and a patient got into a physical quarrel and bumped into an elevator door, causing it to open. Both men fell into the shaft and died.
The New China News Agency reported last fall that 11 people had been arrested on suspicion of selling more than 100 counterfeit brand-name elevators across China
Tommy Yang in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
Follow @JulieMakLAT for news from China