Chinese official dies during investigation into marathon deaths

BEIJING -- A Chinese county official appears to have killed himself during an investigation into the deaths of 21 runners last month during an ultramarathon, state television reported Friday.

CCTV said police were notified Wednesday that a man had jumped from his apartment and died. Upon investigation, he was found to be Jingtai County Communist Party Secretary Li Zuobi. Homicide has been ruled out, according to CCTV.

On Friday, the Gansu provincial government in western China handed down punishments to 27 officials, posthumously exempting Li but sacking his deputy, Zhang Wenling, CCTV reported. Two other lower-ranking officials were detained pending a further investigation, while the others were given administrative punishments, demotions, warnings and demerits.

A report issued by the province found a lack of adequate planning for the May 22 event and a failure to respond effectively once freezing rain and gale-force winds hit the mountain on which the runners were competing.

The organizing committee failed to implement its protocols for managing the race and was guilty of being "overly formalistic and bureaucratic," the report said.

Competitors were running 100 kilometers (62 miles), partly along an extremely narrow mountain path, at altitudes up to 9,800 feet in the Yellow River Stone Forest tourist site in Gansu's Baiyin city.

Reports said about $150,000 in compensation has been offered for each victim, but some family members had rejected the amount, saying that many who died were breadwinners and at the top of their sport. Among those who died was well-known runner Liang Jing, who had won a 100-kilometer race in the Gobi Desert.

While the race has been held several times before, runners were apparently caught off guard by the cold weather and difficult conditions on steep unpaved paths composed of a mix of stones and sand.

Amid the harsh weather conditions, about 50 of the more than 170 competitors were given shelter in traditional cave dwellings maintained by shepherds. An all-night rescue mission brought most of them to safety, although several had to be hospitalized.