Friday, 5 June 2015

Capsized Chinese ship righted as rescuers find 97 bodies so far; hundreds still missing

A search for survivors on the Yangtze River has turned into a recovery operation, as Chinese officials acknowledged that hundreds of cruise passengers had died in what is likely the country’s worst maritime disaster in 65 years.

Authorities on Friday morning said they had righted the capsized cruise ship, the Eastern Star, signaling that they had given up on finding any more survivors.

A spokesman for China’s Ministry of Transport had hinted Wednesday that hope was fading fast, saying rescuers were holding out for a miracle.

Attempts to find survivors by cutting through the capsized hull were fruitless. The Transport Ministry spokesman, Xu Chengguang, was somber at a news conference Thursday night: “What makes us deeply, deeply regretful is that our search of the areas where there was possible presence of survivors didn’t yield any discovery, didn’t create a miracle,” he said. “With no likelihood of survivors, we can start the work of righting and lifting the ship.”

Righting the vessel “will enable an audit of all the cabins to be carried out as quickly as possible and will be good for searching for the missing in the shortest period of time,” the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing the emergency-response command center. The salvaging would be done “to preserve the dignity of the dead to the utmost extent,” the command center told Xinhua.

“We have to face this,” said Jin Weifu, 40, whose father-in-law was on board the Eastern Star. “I believe most of us were already prepared for the worst.”

The Eastern Star was carrying 456 people, many of them elderly tourists, when it sank after running into what authorities said was a small tornado. Fourteen survivors have been found, including the captain and the chief engineer. The official death toll rose to 97 on Friday, leaving 345 still missing.

If they are all confirmed dead, the Eastern Star’s sinking would mark China’s worst nautical disaster since the waning moments of its civil war in the late 1940s, when two steamships packed with people fleeing the fighting sank. In 1999, a fire on a ferryboat, the Dashun, traversing the Bohai Bay left 280 people dead. Preparations for salvage work began Wednesday when two 500-ton barges with cranes were maneuvered into place around the capsized vessel, footage on state broadcaster China Central Television showed. Overnight emergency crews cut three holes along different sections of the hull in what CCTV said was a last check for signs of life. Afterward, divers girded the hull in eight places with steel cables to be used in righting the ship.

Built in 1994, the Eastern Star had a maximum capacity of 584 people. A retrofit in 1997 extended the ship’s length by 11 meters, the Transport Ministry’s Mr. Xu said. It underwent another retrofit in 2008 that cut its capacity to 534 people. In both cases, the ship conformed with technical regulations, Mr. Xu said.

Earlier on Thursday, authorities had ordered Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp., the owner of the Eastern Star, to suspend operations of its sister ship, the Eastern Pearl. The company was also ordered to conduct a comprehensive inspection of the rest of its fleet, according to Xinhua. The Eastern Pearl has the same design as the Eastern Star, it said.

An executive at Chongqing Eastern, Qin Yuping, declined to comment, referring questions to local authorities in Chongqing.

Relatives of those aboard the ship were streaming into Jianli, the county seat nearest the site of the accident. The county government had received more than 1,200 people hoping to see the remains of their loved ones, CCTV said.

Some gathered at the sole funeral parlor in Jianli as hearses carrying bodies drove past lines of paramilitary police.

Officials told relatives they would have to wait to enter the funeral parlor, sparking at least one outburst from a couple that had traveled to Jianli from the northern city of Tianjin.

“She’s my mother! I just want to see the body, see her one last time!” Zhang Hongyi shouted, referring to her 63-year-old mother, Cao Xia, who was traveling on the Eastern Star with five friends. Ms. Zhang’s husband, Hao Guanli, asked whether his mother-in-law’s body would be cremated before they could see it.

Chinese authorities have attributed the accident to sudden high winds just before 9:30 p.m., but also have placed the surviving captain and first engineer under police custody. Passengers’ relatives have raised questions about whether the boat should have continued on after the storm started and despite a weather warning earlier in the evening.

In a sign of potential unrest among the hundreds of relatives who have descended on the small Hubei province county of Jianli, one distraught family member burst into a gathering of journalists to complain about their treatment and demand an investigation into possible human error.

“All the emphasis is on a natural disaster … but we think that this is unjust,” said Xia Yunchen, a 70-year-old university lecturer. “Apart from natural disaster were there other causes? Is this not rational to ask?”

Xia, whose older brother Xia Qinchen, from the eastern coastal city of Qingdao, was a passenger, demanded that relatives be allowed to view their loved ones’ bodies before they are cremated. In past disasters, authorities have instead cremated bodies and delivered ashes to the victims’ families, in keeping with the tight management of the aftermath of disasters and fears of spiraling unrest.

“Why do you view the common people as your enemies?” Xia cried out. “There’s no human feeling, can’t we change this habit?”

Many of the more than 450 people on board the cruise ship were reported to be retirees taking in the Yangtze’s scenic vistas. With 97 confirmed dead and more than 340 missing, the capsizing is likely to become the country’s deadliest boat disaster in seven decades. The 14 survivors of the capsizing including three pulled by divers from air pockets in the overturned boat on Tuesday after rescuers tapped the hull and heard responding yells from inside.

Most of the passengers on the Eastern Star were from Shanghai and cities in nearby Jiangsu province. Family members in Shanghai were told on Wednesday that district governments where they lived would arrange transportation to Hubei.

Among those preparing to travel from Shanghai to Jianli was Mr. Jin, who planned to go there with his wife. “The next step is to focus on appropriate funeral arrangements,” he said.

Friday 5 June 2015


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