By Yan Jie in Beijing and Feng Zhiwei in Xiangxiang
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The classes were unusually quiet as a pall of gloom hung over Yucai High School in Xiangxiang Tuesday morning as teachers and students mourned the deaths of eight students in a stampede on Monday night.
The only sound that could be heard even scores of meters away was that of raindrops, which incidentally played a crucial role in the tragedy.
Seven boys and one girl were killed and 26 other students were injured, five of them seriously, when about 400 of them made a dash for the staircase that led to the exit closest to their dormitories to avoid getting drenched in the rain, which has been falling since Monday evening.
Chen Xinwei, a school official, told Xinhua: "It's like a nightmare It's hard to believe those children are dead."
Students and teachers started their classes Tuesdayby observing a minute's silence in memory of the stampede victims. Children, tears flowing down the cheeks of some, also prayed for the quick recovery of the injured.
The Xiangxiang local government is working on a compensation scheme. It has promised that the families of the victims would get the maximum possible compensation, Xinhua said.
Though normal classes were held yesterday, there was an overriding sense of sorrow among the students and teachers. Students exchanged worried glances and parents gathered in front of the school gate to find out whether their wards were safe, Xinhua said.
Xiangxiang's publicity department said the stampede took place just after 9:10 pm when students were rushing back to their dormitories after finishing their evening study session.
About 400 students dashed for one staircase, though there are three others, in the main building because it led to the exit closest to their dorms. It was raining heavily and they did not want to get drenched.
"At 9:30 pm, the lights go off. We had only 20 minutes to return to the dorms and prepare for bed," said 14-year-old Xiao Hong (not her real name), who was lying on a bed in the People's Hospital of Xiangxiang with bruises on her face. "So we had to hurry."
One of the girls lost her footing on the staircase between the second and first floors because rain had made the less than 1.5- m-wide steps slippery, is what most of the witnesses said.
As soon as she slipped, the students behind her came tumbling down and ended up on the landing of about 5 sq m.
"There was no light (on the landing)," said Xiao Li (not her real name), 14, from her hospital bed. "Once the students in front fell, the rest crash-landed on them We could only hear cries and screams."
Staircases have been overcrowded before, Xiao Li said, but nobody was even injured.
Two of the seriously injured students regained consciousness after more than 12 hours, Central China Television (CCTV) said Tuesdayafternoon. Three others, who suffered minor injuries, were discharged from hospital after treatment.
A section of the staircase has been cordoned off for further investigation to determine the cause of the stampede, and blood stains could still be seen on the landing yesterday.
Police have detained the school principal surnamed Ye. And city officials have told the school's other board directors to cooperate with police in the investigation.
The school's bank accounts have been frozen, and the city's education bureau has taken over the school's management for the time being.
Zou Qing contributed to the story.
The eight students were crushed or were suffocated to death.
The school, regarded as one of the best in Xiangxiang in southern Hunan province, was set up in 1997, and had 3,626 students.
Higher authorities reacted to the tragedy by sacking Zhu Qinghua, the county-level city's education chief.