At least 18 kindergarten kids and two adults were killed Wednesday when a school bus with just nine seats but crammed with 64 people crashed on its way to class in western China, state media reported.
Authorities blamed overloading for the accident in which the bus collided head-on with a truck in China's Gansu province, Xinhua News Agency said.
News of the crash ignited public anger across China, highlighting an underfunded education system that especially shortchanges students in remote areas.
Two adults — the driver of the minibus and a teacher at the kindergarten — also died in the accident, said an official surnamed Fan, the director of the emergency office of the Gansu provincial work safety bureau.
The bus had nine seats, but Fan said it was jammed with 62 children and two adults when it collided with the truck.
Four children and the bus driver died at the scene, said Fan.
Gao Shaobo, head of traffic police in Zhengning county, where the school is located, later said that 20 people had died and 44 were still hospitalized — two in critical condition and 12 with serious injuries.
The 18 young victims were on their way to Little Doctor Kindergarten in Qingyang city when the accident happened at 9:40 a.m. Wednesday (8:40 p.m. ET), Xinhua said. It earlier said the kindergarten was called Yulinzi Township Kindergarten.
The bus was run by the kindergarten, Xinhua said, citing Li Yuanqing, a press official with Zhengning County government.
"We are doing all we can to reassure the parents," said a local government official, who, like many Chinese would give only his surname, Gao.
Underfunded rural areas
Such overcrowding on school buses is common in China, and accidents happen frequently because of poorly maintained vehicles and poor driving habits. State television aired a story in September on a minivan with eight seats that was stopped while carrying 64 preschoolers.
Beijing has made a concerted effort to rebuild and improve a public education system that had withered with the collapse of centrally planned socialism in the 1990s. Central government spending on education has steadily grown in recent years, rising a projected 16 percent this year to 296 billion yuan ($46 billion), about three-quarters of it given to local governments.
The overall figures mask great disparities, with rural areas and small cities like Qingyang chronically short of funds. Some local governments lack funds to pay teachers, who in egregious cases have charged parents extra fees to teach their children the required curriculum.
The impact of the latest crash drove the front of the minibus back into the seats, ripped open the top and buckled the sides of the vehicle, while the front of the truck was damaged only slightly.
Xinhua reported that the truck was loaded with coal, but Gao told state broadcaster CCTV that it was used to transport stones but was empty at the time of the accident.