At roughly 3:20 PM, Christmas Eve, I left my apartment at GaoAn Road to go to the post office. But, as I completed the first of seven flights of stairs to the lobby and entrance of my building, I realized that I had forgotten the envelope that I needed to mail. So I backtracked, grabbed the envelope, and began descending again, when, suddenly, just above the fourth floor (I think), I heard a tremendous crash come through the walls of the stairwell. It sounded metallic and fierce, as if scaffolding had fallen.
Seconds later I turned the corner out of the stairwell and saw this wreckage in the front doorway of my building:
By shear coincidence, I had a digital camera in my pocket (I was wearing the coat that I usually take on assignment), and I snapped this photo. The front office receptionist and I stood next to each other, and I think we pretty much figured it out simultaneously: the radio signal tower that sat atop my twenty-five story apartment building had toppled. Why, we didn’t know. But that was the radio tower, no question.
There were several electrical wires hanging loose in the area as a result of the collapse, but I shimmied down the steps and – from my perspective – it looked as if nobody had been crushed by the collapse. This was a small miracle: the space in front of my building is a favorite conversation pit for the many senior citizens who live in the area.
As I stood there, unsure of how to proceed, I watched in dismay as several residents of the building climbed over the collapsed, ten meter tower – in spite of what appeared to be several wires containing live current on the ground. Fortunately, they weren’t hurt, and so I felt safe enough to exit to the left of the collapsed tower and snap some additional photos (in retrospect, completely stupid; but I can’t say that I had my wits about me at that point).
The receptionist called the police as a few gawkers approached from the street. Then, quite suddenly, four young, dusty men – all migrant workers – dashed down the steps of the building in a panic. They stopped beside me, looked in all directions, and then – seeing that the tower had collapsed against the wall in the first picture (above the jump) – rushed to climb over it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the image of them clawing up the concrete wall and leaping over it, the sound of total distress in their voices. One stayed behind, almost in tears, and – as I later learned – explained to an arriving police officer that one of their co-workers had fallen with the tower (they had been hired to demolish it) and was most likely on the other side of the wall, dead or injured.
I don’t know anything about the worker who spoke to the police (to the far left in the above photo), but no doubt he is from the same town as the worker who fell, and quite possibly he is a relative. In either case, the site of the accident was filling with the curious and the concerned. Xinhua’s Shanghai office is only a block away, and reporters and photographers were on the scene within minutes. More police arrived and one quietly indicated that he would appreciate if I stopped taking photos.
So I walked outside of the gate, to Gao An Road and the gate to the building where – presumably – the body of the fallen worker was to be found. The police had already entered the area, and an ambulance arrived shortly thereafter. I watched as a paramedic and a stretcher entered the blocked-off space and, a few minutes later, I watched as the paramedic and the stretcher left. Word soon swept through the gathering crowd that the worker was dead.
At the same time, several people in the crowd were whispering that the death was a suicide; that is, the worker had somehow jumped, and taken the ten meter tower with him. I found a friend in the crowd – someone who happened to have a good relationship with the guard at my building’s gate – and he went over to get the story. Sure enough, the guard was happily telling all takers that a suicide had taken place. My friend, who has other friends in my building’s politburo, sought out another leading resident, who merely smiled when asked about the suicide and – when pressed – offered: “I can’t say anything.”
I had no interest in hearing anything more about how the building’s management was planning to cover its negligence, and I no longer had a desire to visit the post office, so I returned to my apartment. From the elevator lobby on my floor, I took this photo:
Thirty minutes later, as I left for a Christmas dinner invitation, some kind of inspector was on-site at the base of the building, checking and clearing (!!!) accident debris. For the record: if anyone from Shanghai municipality would like evidence for why this radio tower fell, I gladly offer the following photo as evidence. Note the rust and corrosion on the base of the tower.
I have no idea whether the weight or activities of workers near or on the tower caused this accident. But looking at that corroded base, it’s a miracle that the tower didn’t collapse sooner (perhaps in a typhoon). Whatever the cause, there is absolutely no good reason that a worker should have fallen to his death when the tower collapsed (or, for that matter, there’s no good reason for the tower to collapse if even minimal safety standards were followed). I’m not surprised that my building’s management was quick to blame the migrants, but the truth is that they should be quick to blame themselves: under even the most rudimentary of civil law codes (which, arguably, China does not yet have), employers are obligated, legally, to secure the safety of a work site. If the site is implicitly dangerous, then the employer is legally obligated to provide safety equipment and procedures that mitigate the risk. I’m no expert on tower demolition, but I know what I see: and what I see are a lot of migrant workers in my building, none of whom have ever been provided with hardhats, much less safety harnesses for high-elevation work.
Anyway, as I mentioned, the media was early and active at the accident site. By the time I reached the home where I had Christmas dinner, the evening news was covering it. By the time I reached home, Shanghai Daily had a brief story reporting it, including a welcome and necessary conclusion:
A WORKER was killed and another was injured when a beeper signal tower fell from the top of a 25-story building during demolition in downtown Shanghai today … [T]he accident was said to be caused by unsafe work procedures.
I don’t have much more to add to this post, except my sincere condolences to the family and friends of the dead worker, whoever they are, and wherever they might be. As for the managers and property owners who sent this worker to his death, I sincerely hope that this worker’s kin become much more than the nameless, faceless masses whom you – and so many other Shanghainese property owners and landlords – treat as if they deserve no respect, as if they are not entitled to be treated with dignity.
Shanghai claims to be a world class city, and when I see the high-end boutiques and hotels that are erupting all over my neighborhood, I’m inclined to agree. But tonight, when I go to sleep, it’s not the boutiques that I’ll remember, it’s the faces of distraught workers searching for their colleague in the wreckage of a rusty antenna. There’s no class in that; there’s only shame.