21 people were killed after hail, freezing rain and high winds hit runners taking part in a cross-country mountain race in China, state media said Sunday.
The extreme weather struck a high-altitude section of the 100-kilometre (62-mile) race held in the scenic Yellow River Stone Forest in north western Gansu province Saturday afternoon.
Among the dead were elite Chinese long-distance runners, local media reported.
Official news agency Xinhua confirmed that 21 of the 172 participants had died, citing the local rescue command headquarters. The other 151 are now safe, according to state media.
Baiyin city mayor Zhang Xuchen said that at around midday Saturday a section of the rugged ultramarathon course – between kilometres 20 and 31 – was "suddenly affected by disastrous weather".
"In a short period of time, hailstones and ice rain suddenly fell in the local area, and there were strong winds. The temperature sharply dropped," Zhang said.
Shortly after receiving messages for help, marathon organisers dispatched a rescue team.
At around 2:00 pm, weather conditions worsened and the race was called off, Zhang said.
The victims included top domestic marathon runners Liang Jing and Huang Guanjun, local media reported. Liang had won multiple Chinese ultramarathons in recent years.
Huang, who was deaf-mute, won the men's hearing-impaired marathon at the 2019 National Paralympic Games held in Tianjin.
Father-of-one Lu Zhengyi, who took part in several marathons, was also reported by local media as one of the victims.
"As the event's organiser, we feel a deep sense of guilt and self-blame, express our deep mourning for the victims and deep condolences to their families and the injured runners," Zhang said.
The race, backed by the Baiyin city government and the Chinese Athletic Association, has been held for four successive years.
'Come And Save Us!'
Xinhua reported that some of the runners suffered from hypothermia, and Zhang said earlier that eight people were being treated for minor injuries and were in a stable condition.
Video footage broadcast on state media showed emergency rescue personnel in combat fatigues carrying flashlights as they climbed through the rocky terrain at night.
Some marathon participants, wrapped in heavy-duty blankets, were filmed being put on stretchers by rescuers.
Photos published by Chinese media also showed a group of runners huddled together on the mountainside, some wrapped in insulation blankets.
"My whole body was soaked through, including my shoes and socks. I couldn't stand up straight because of the wind, I was very worried I'd be blown over. The cold became more and more unbearable," one survivor was quoted as saying in local media.
"While descending the mountain, I was already experiencing hypothermia symptoms."
Another survivor was quoted as saying most victims were "gods" of the sport who were frontrunners in the race.
"As soon as I closed my eyes, I saw those who had fallen on the mountain," the anonymous runner said.
Screenshots of messages sent in the race participants' chat group were published in local media.
"A few people have already lost consciousness and are foaming at the mouth," wrote one unidentified participant. "Come and save us, quick!"
Calls For Contingency Plans
Chinese social media erupted in mourning and outrage Sunday, as users blamed organisers for perceived failings in contingency planning.
"The local organisers have an inescapable responsibility for the bad weather in the marathon! Current weather forecast accuracy rates are very high ... what kind of emergency plans did they have?" wrote one user.
Gansu Meteorological Bureau warned of "sudden heavy showers, hail, lightning, sudden gale-force winds" and other adverse weather conditions across the province in a report dated Friday.
A CCTV commentary published Sunday afternoon urged sporting organisers to make failsafe contingency plans, and called on participants to be "fully aware of the risks of extreme sports".
Provincial authorities have set up an investigation team to look into the cause of the incident, state media reported.
Gansu Party Secretary Yin Hong said it was "necessary to learn painful lessons" from the event, state tabloid Global Times reported.
Repeated calls to Baiyin city propaganda department were not answered.
Gansu, one of China's poorest regions, borders Mongolia to the north and Xinjiang to the west.
Deadly floods and landslides have hit the province in the past, with mudslides reportedly killing more than 1,000 people in one town in 2010. – AFP