FUZHOU, China—It was a little before 2:40 p.m. when Zhu Jinhua and others on the crowded No. 5 bus noticed a fellow passenger behaving oddly.
Bystanders watched the man cuss loudly, then squat over a black steel bucket in the crowded aisle. Wisps of acrid yellow smoke wafted through the bus.
"Other passengers asked him, `What's in the bucket? Why's it smoking?'" Zhu said. "People were afraid of the man. Some tried to get off but they couldn't. The doors were shut."
The bus stopped along Big East Street, the busiest thoroughfare in this city in coastal Fujian province, then lurched ahead, the driver unaware of the hubbub aboard.
An instant later, a powerful explosion ripped through the bus, leaving it a tangled wreck. The suicide bomber, Huang Maojin, a 42-year-old farmer, was killed in the Monday afternoon blast and 31 other people suffered injuries, three of them life-threatening. The bus driver later had both her injured legs amputated.
Police afterwards said the bomber suffered from lung cancer and was bitter that he lacked money for treatment. Authorities said a suicide note was found on his body. But what drove Huang to mimic radical Islamic terrorists and blow himself up on crowded public transportation remains a mystery.
The curious case has generated a stream of comments on the Internet, which serves as an office water cooler in China. Some chat-room posts blamed the rising cost of health care in China and the widening gap between rich and poor. Others simply paint Huang as a madman.
The state-run China Daily newspaper said Huang "had been suffering from lung cancer for about two years" and that his suicide note recounted how police sent him to jail after a dispute with neighbors, delaying treatment for his illness.
Further reporting on the background of the suicide bomber, how he built his bomb and what drove him to despair, appears to have been quashed in national media.
At the site of the blast, under thick shade trees and surrounded by high-rises, passersby were quick to offer assessments into the bomber's motives.
"He had a psychological problem. He wanted to have people die with him," said Huang Yaguan, a young nurse handing out pamphlets along the sidewalk. Rubble and broken glass from a jewelry store lay behind her.
Others offered sympathy for the troubles Huang faced, a measure of public compassion for rural Chinese with little access to expensive health care.
A generation ago, by the end of the rule of Mao Zedong, the founder of the Communist state, nearly all rural people had access to subsidized health clinics run largely by "barefoot doctors," or trained lay practitioners.
But now, nine out of 10 rural residents are without health insurance, tottering on the brink of destitution in the face of any major illness.
A commentary in a Shanghai newspaper, the Dongfang Early News, urged that the conditions that drove the suicide attack should be addressed to avoid repeats.
"Only when we study this case carefully, take effective measures to avoid `social exclusion,' can we prevent the appearance of another Mr. Huang Maojin," said the commentary, published Wednesday.
Another passerby, Lin Yanzhen, said a sibling who's a physician compared Huang to angry AIDS patients who want others to experience their suffering. "In the railway station, they can prick you with a needle," she said.
She said Huang, from rural Gutian County outside of Fuzhou, might have gotten the idea for the attack from recent news accounts of the London terror bombings.
"When you're mentally ill, you're susceptible. It may dawn on you, `OK, I can do the same thing,'" said Lin, a management student at a university in nearby Xiamen.
Suicide attacks are rare in China, but social unrest in the nation mounts over land disputes, wealth gaps, environmental despoliation and grievances over corruption. Restrictions on news reporting make it difficult to determine when explosions are accidents or triggered by angry people.
An explosion March 17 on a double-decker bus in Jiangxi province, south of here, killed up to 30 people. News reports said authorities couldn't rule out fireworks aboard as a cause. In mid-January, a disgruntled coal miner was blamed for placing a bomb aboard a minibus in the northwestern Xinjiang region, killing 11 people.
Zhu, the passenger who observed the suicide bomber before Monday's blast, said he felt nothing but rage for the attacker.
"I hate him. My wife is injured severely. My heart is beating wildly," Zhu said, seated in a stairwell at the Fujian Provincial Hospital, his blue shirt still stained with the blood of his hospitalized wife.
Zhu, a construction foreman who earns about $220 a month, said he feels the same pressures over health care costs that drove Huang to take violent action.
"Every month, I have to pay more than 300 yuan (about $37) for my father's respiratory illness," Zhu said. Now, he's depending on promises from the hospital that he won't be burdened with additional payments because of his wife's sudden bomb injuries.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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