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Chinese escalator that crushed woman had design flaw, investigators say

New details have emerged about the tragic case of a Chinese woman literally swallowed into the gears of an escalator this week as she disembarked from the top of the moving staircase.

Surveillance camera images made public indicate that minutes before Xiang Liujuan, 30, stepped onto the metal footplate that collapsed beneath her feet and caused her to be crushed by the escalator’s machinery, two employees at the shopping center had stepped onto the same metal footplate and discovered that it was loose.

The two employees did report the problem to management; however, the escalator was not immediately shut down.

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Poor emergency response from the mall and a design flaw in the escalator itself caused the horrifying accident that killed the 30-year-old mother in Jingzhou, a city in central China, said the official investigation report of the accident released late Tuesday, the state-owned China Quality Daily reported.

The security-camera video released by state-run China Central Television showed two female employees stepping onto the metal footplate together at around 10:06 a.m. Sunday, causing it to flip. The two almost fell.

“There’s a problem! Here! I almost fell into it,” one of the employees can be heard saying in the security video.

After reporting the issue to the mall’s management, the two workers returned to the escalator two minutes later and one of them even tapped the same metal footplate again with the tip of her foot to check if it was still loose.

While the two were discussing what was wrong, a family of three appeared at the bottom of the escalator. Xiang Liujuan took her son onto the escalator, while her husband stayed behind. When the mother and her son got closer to the top of the moving staircase, one of the workers warned Xiang that there was a problem with the metal footplate.

Pointing to where the problem was, one worker told her: “Jump over it.”

Xiang picked up her son with both hands and was prepared to jump. Unfortunately, she avoided the first metal footplate at the top of the escalator and stepped right onto the second, loose metal footplate, which collapsed. As she slipped into the machinery, she pushed her son toward the workers and was dragged down by the rotating gears.

The shopping center will be “held responsible” for failing to shut down the escalator after learning there was a problem, Chinese authorities said in the official investigation report. It was unclear what kind of penalties the mall might incur.

In addition, government investigators said the design of the escalator, manufactured by Suzhou-based Shenlong Elevator Co., had flaws that would cause the metal footplate to easily come loose and flip. The local safety inspection bureau in Hubei province, where Jingzhou is located, ordered all escalators made by Shenlong to suspend operations at once and all the escalators operating in the province to be thoroughly inspected. It was not clear whether other localities would follow suit.

Shenlong filed for an IPO in May last year but the company has not yet gone public. The company sold 8,861 escalators and elevators in 2014, the Beijing-based National Business Daily reported.

As the video of the horrific accident has been widely circulated on Chinese social media, many people have become exceptionally cautious when using escalators. A series of tongue-in-cheek videos has been making the rounds, showing people trying to avoid the metal footplates at the end of escalators by straddling handrails and performing other moves.

Chinese media reported that shoppers in different malls have begun to tap on the metal footplates at the end of escalators to make sure they’re stable, before stepping onto them. And a popular picture on the Chinese social media website Weibo illustrated which metal footplate, out of the usual three at the end of escalators, was dangerous and should be avoided.

Led by Chinese state media such as the People’s Daily, tutorials explaining where the emergency stop button is located on escalators became an instant hit on Chinese social media as well. Such “friendly tips,” while useful, may also be an attempt to divert attention away from questions such as the cause of the accident or whether the government has done its job to ensure public safety.

When a flash storm flooded the streets of the Chinese capital in 2012 and an SUV driver drowned in his vehicle in a downtown Beijing underpass, state media released a tutorial demonstrating how to break a vehicle’s window with the headrest of the car seat. Little attention was paid, however, to the city’s drainage system.

In view of the escalator incident, the Beijing News said in an editorial that a better regulated and strictly enforced safety inspection system would be much more effective than a few “survival tips” to ensure the public’s safety.

“To restore the public’s sense of safety, we cannot just rely on tips like ‘this is poisonous’ or ‘that is dirt’ to protect ourselves,” the editorial said. “We cannot jump like Super Mario Brothers every time we step out of the door. In a society with good social order, the public should not live with fear. A good system can help prevent those invisible loopholes.”

Tommy Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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