Top Official of Chinese County Found Dead Amid Probe Into Fatal Ultramarathon That Killed 21

A Chinese county government official was found dead on Wednesday amid an investigation after 21 people were killed during a fatal ultramarathon in northwestern Gansu in May.

The ultramarathon turned disastrous when extreme weather conditions suddenly hit the mountain that runners were competing on. The New York Times reported that dozens of the 172 runners went missing as freezing rain, intense winds, and hail snuck up on them. Officials reportedly did nothing to cancel the event, and soon a rescue mission was underway and 21 runners were found dead.

News agency AFP reported on Wednesday that police were called to the home of a man who had allegedly jumped from his apartment building and died. Upon further investigation, police found it to be Communist Party secretary Li Zuobi of Jingtai County—the county that hosted the ultramarathon. Police are ruling out a homicide, AFP reported.

On Friday, authorities confirmed at a press conference that Zuobi had been found dead. His death occurred days before the Gansu provincial government gave punishments to 27 officials in response to the deaths of 21 marathon runners.

The events of the ultramarathon have been deemed one of the worst events in the history of long-distance running, according to the New York Times.

"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," Baiyin city mayor, Zhang Xuchen, told reporters.

According to published reports, messages on a private WeChat between runners showed that some people had died of hypothermia. "The wind is too strong, our thermal blankets have been torn to bits," one runner wrote.

Another message reported that other runners were unconscious and foaming at the mouth. Rescue missions included nearly 700 rescuers and soldiers using radar detectors and thermal imaging drones.

The disaster stimulated calls for more regulation and concerns over why officials seemingly ignored the weather forecast.

Twenty-seven officials, including the mayor of Baiyin city and the magistrate of the county, were given administrative punishments, demotions, and warnings on Friday, posthumously exempting Zuobi, according to the Associated Press. Two other lower-ranking officials have been detained and are awaiting further investigation.

A criminal report regarding the 27 officials said the province found there was a lack of adequate planning for the event and a failure to respond effectively once the weather hit. The national sports authority suspended all ultramarathon and long-distance running events in China on June 3, effective immediately.

"On the 22nd of May, the public safety incident at Bayin City Stone Forest 100km Trail Race in Gansu Province, in part due to sudden changes in weather, caused a great loss of human life – a lesson imbued with deeply felt grief," the announcement said.

"In order to fully guarantee the health and to safeguard the lives of the people, races in mountainous areas, cross-desert races, ultra-distance races and other such newly popular sport activities that involve high risk, management duties are unclear, regulations not perfected and safety standards not clear-cut, are suspended from this day," the announcement added.

The report said officials were "overly formalistic and bureaucratic" in their rescue response. Mayor Xuchen told reporters, "As the organizer of the event, we are full of guilt and remorse. We express deep condolences and sympathy to the families of the victims and the injured."

Newsweek reached out to the State Council of the People's Republic of China for comment but did not hear back in time for publication.

This photo taken on May 22, 2021 shows rescuers carrying equipment as they search for runners who were competing in a 100-kilometre cross-country mountain race when extreme weather hit the area, leaving at least 20 dead, near the city of Baiyin in China's northwestern Gansu province. A top government official was found dead on Wednesday amid probe into the incident, days before 27 officials received punishments and demotions for the disaster. - China OUT (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)