SHANGHAI - A New Year's stampede on Shanghai's historic waterfront killed at least 36 revellers and injured dozens more, mostly women, as one police officer said fewer personnel than previously were securing the area.
While some witnesses said partygoers had scrambled for fake money thrown from a building, others said this was unlikely to have been the main cause and huge crowds were to blame.
The disaster, centred on a wide stairway leading up to a riverfront promenade, happened shortly before midnight on Wednesday as people packed the Bund area to usher in 2015.
The tragedy was a "wake-up call that the world's second-largest economy is still a developing country which has fragile social management", the official news agency Xinhua said in an unusually critical commentary.
"People were screaming, women were screaming and people starting jumping off the staircase to get clear," said a Shanghai resident who gave her name as Sarah.
"There was a quiet, and then people on the stairs fell in a wave and people started to get trampled," Sarah, a Singaporean national, told AFP.
People carried the dead and injured through a gap in the crowd as flashes from emergency vehicles and revellers' light sticks lit up the night, mobile phone video footage viewed by AFP showed.
American Andrew Shainker, an English teacher, posted on Chinese messaging network WeChat: "I witnessed lifeless bodies being carried out of a crowd one by one and dumped on the street.
'Screams of panic'
"You could hear screams of panic. What I thought was the best view on the Bund ended up being a front row seat to an international tragedy." Most of the victims appeared to be Chinese, he said.
"I felt I was suffocating," wrote one person posting on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. "Some people with us will not come back." City officials said 36 people were confirmed killed and 47 injured, 13 of them seriously.
Xinhua said that among the dead was a Taiwanese and 25 of those killed were women. It added that the ages of the first 10 identified fatalities ranged from 16 to 36.
A Malaysian student at a Chinese university was among the dead, Malaysia's foreign ministry said.
Another Malaysian and two Taiwanese were among the injured, the Shanghai government reported.
President Xi Jinping demanded an immediate investigation into the cause of the disaster.
The Bund, renowned for its colonial architecture, is the former financial district of China's commercial hub and now a popular tourist destination, packed with high-end restaurants and expensive boutiques.
Shanghai residents have traditionally flocked there to celebrate New Year, and more recently the district government overseeing the area has staged official celebrations.
This year's "countdown" included a light show, singing performances and finally fireworks.
It was scaled down and moved to a new location away from the main Bund specifically due to concerns about overcrowding after nearly 300,000 people turned out to see the spectacle last New Year's Eve, the Shanghai Daily said.
Senior officer Cai Lixin acknowledged there were fewer police than for some previous events.
"Yesterday, there wasn't an event, therefore we didn't arrange for as many officers compared to something like last year's National Day celebration," he was quoted as saying by the government-linked Shanghai news portal Eastday.com, in a comment later apparently deleted from the website.
Shanghai television quoted authorities as saying a "more than normal" 700 police officers were present but more people than expected had shown up to celebrate.
Both Sarah and Shainker were in Bund 18, a shopping and entertainment complex where witnesses said dollar-like notes had been thrown from a window, prompting a scramble to retrieve them.
But others pointed out that a wide street separates the building from the staircase where the main crush occurred.
Pictures posted online showed the slips of paper were a similar size, shape and colour as US currency, but emblazoned with the logo of M18, a nightclub in the building, and stamped "New Year 2015".
Shanghai television said authorities were investigating the money-throwing incident, but attributed the cause of the accident to people slipping and falling in the crowded conditions on the Bund.
By dawn there was little evidence of the disaster.
The plaza where the accident took place is named for Shanghai's first Communist mayor Chen Yi, and mourners laid flowers at his statue.
More than 20 police vehicles were parked outside Shanghai Number One People's Hospital, where most of the injured were taken.
One young man emerged from the hospital near tears, telling AFP: "My wife is dead." Earlier in the day, he had waited for confirmation at the hospital.
Most large gatherings in China are carefully controlled but the country has seen other incidents in which overcrowding has caused panic and deaths.
And in Hong Kong, when it was still a British colony, 20 people were killed at the start of 1993 as New Year's revellers poured into a narrow street in the Lan Kwai Fong entertainment district.