SHANGHAI — Just before midnight Wednesday, a huge crowd that had gathered for an outdoor New Year’s Eve celebration in this city’s historic riverfront district began to grow unruly. There was pushing and shoving. And then, in an instant, a stampede began that would trample at least 36 people to death and injure dozens more.

“We were just trying to walk up the steps to see the light show, and then people at the top began pushing their way down,” said a 20-year-old man who gave his name only as Xu, while waiting for a friend at the Shanghai No. 1 People’s Hospital. “Then I heard someone scream, and people began to panic. We got crushed.”

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The stampede started after 11:35 p.m. Wednesday near Chen Yi Square. Most of the victims were young revelers who had come to ring in 2015 on the Bund, Shanghai’s iconic waterside promenade. Among the dead were 25 women, ages 16 to 36, according to Xinhua, the state-run news agency.

Like other major cities around the world, Shanghai has made its New Year’s Eve celebration a signature event, with light shows and performances late into the night.

This year’s big attraction was billed as a “5-D light show” that was supposed to project colorful blazes of light across the river, onto the city’s newest landmark, the 2,074-foot Shanghai Tower, the world’s second-tallest building after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

But many people who said they were milling around the Bund on Wednesday night believe the huge crowds that had gathered for this year’s event simply overwhelmed authorities and the event organizers in this city of 25 million.

A video posted on Youku.com appears to show an enormous mass of people pushing and yelling and crushing people under its weight.

‘We were just trying to walk up the steps . . . and then people at the top began pushing their way down.’

Xu, 20, describing the first moments of the stampede 

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The crowd may have been even larger than the 300,000 people the city said showed up a year ago, said attendees.

After the stampede, and the ensuing chaos as ambulances tried to reach the victims who were sprawled out in what is usually a busy traffic intersection, the light show was canceled. Police officers locked arms to close off an area for ambulances to get in. But for some, it was too late. Many victims died before reaching a hospital, authorities said.

On Thursday, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, ordered an immediate investigation. By Thursday afternoon, the police were looking into reports that a party in a building adjacent to Chen Yi Square may have contributed to the chaos when fake US $100 bills were tossed from above into the area.

But several people who were at the scene dismissed that theory, saying the phony currency had nothing to do with the stampede. It was just a panic after several people fell and screamed, these witnesses said.

On Thursday afternoon, four city hospitals were treating the victims while friends and relatives waited. In the lobby of Shanghai’s Changzheng Hospital the mother of a 16-year-old girl dropped to her knees after being told her daughter had died. “I can’t take it! I want to die,” the woman cried out as her relatives tried to console her.

In China, New Year’s Eve celebrations are a relatively new affair, far less significant than the Chinese New Year celebrations that take place according to the traditional calendar. And yet, every year the crowds that gather in major Chinese cities on Dec. 31 seem to get bigger.

The Bund is one of Shanghai’s most popular tourist spots. Now elegantly restored, the buildings house banks, upscale restaurants, nightclubs, and five-star hotels.