Saturday, 6 June 2015

Stricken Chinese cruise ship lifted from Yangtze River; hundreds of bodies recovered

The death toll from China ferry disaster has risen to almost 400, making it China’s worst maritime disaster in more than 60 years.

The Eastern Star Cruise ship that capsized and plunged to the bottom of the riverbed during a storm on the River Yangtze on Monday.

Authorities said Saturday afternoon that after working through the night, they had recovered a total of 396 corpses and their search of the vessel was now complete. Fourteen people survived Monday night’s tragedy, and 46 people remain unaccounted for. Only six of the 396 recovered bodies were found outside the ship.

Yesterday a rescue operation managed to stabilise the boat and turn it upright. Hundreds more bodies were discovered by divers last night.

As soldiers and other personnel worked through the night wearing white hazmat suits and life jackets, searching with flashlights, they said they encountered hallways jammed with furniture and other debris. At times, the stench inside the ship was overpowering and many bodies were swollen, stiff or decomposed. Locked cabin doors and rooms filled with mud and silt also hampered the recovery work, and firefighters were called in at times to clear passageways.

More than 700 troops were tasked with removing the victims; a team of six was assigned to each body. Because the Eastern Star overturned in a remote area, the bodies had to be carried more than two miles to the closest road, then transported in vehicles to the mortuary in Jianli, a small agricultural town.

“When we entered the cabins, we all felt overcome by emotion,” said Zeng Xianmei, chief nurse at the paramilitary hospital in the nearby metropolis of Wuhan, choking up at a news conference.

Liu Xiaowu, chief of staff of a brigade from Guangzhou, said he was particularly determined to recover the remains of the youngest passenger, a 3-year-old girl on a trip with her grandparents. Her body was found in a first-class cabin on the upper deck.

“When our soldiers finally discovered her body, they all cried,” he said. “We all have children.”

Liu and other officials said work would now begin to collect victims’ personal effects from the Eastern Star.

Zhang Shifeng of the Ministry of Civil Affairs said authorities had worked out a standard for processing the bodies and that DNA had been collected from the 387 corpses that had arrived at mortuaries by Saturday afternoon.

Peng Jun of the local Hubei Province office of the Ministry of Civil Affairs said authorities had spent over $1.6 million buying more than 400 freezer caskets for the victims. Earlier, hundreds of refrigerated coffins were brought to Jianli but those were later deemed inadequate given how long the bodies were in the water.

Peng said that once positive DNA matches were made, family members would be allowed to see the remains of their loved ones, though he cautioned that many were disfigured. Eighty-one undertakers have been brought to the area to help prepare the bodies.

In China, the seventh day after a death is the first important day of commemoration. Asked if there were any plans for a group commemoration or memorial service on Sunday, the seventh day after the disaster, Zhang said there were no such plans because a group service would not be in accordance with Chinese tradition. But the Ministry of Transport later announced that a ceremony would be held Sunday morning.

Relatives of the passengers, many of who were tourists over 60, have asked why the vessel continued its voyage despite a severe weather warning in the Hubei province and increasingly violent winds.

Both the captain and the first engineer have been held in custody, although there has been no official cause for the accident, with the accident blamed on sudden, severe winds.

Angry relatives yesterday protested near the site of the accident, which is being tightly controlled by authorities who have confirmed they do not expect to find any more survivors.

The 76-metre vessel, travelling from Nanjing to the south-western city of Chongqing, was caught up in the heavy rains that swept across the Yangtze area on Monday evening – killing another 15 people and leaving eight missing.

The disaster has now caused a higher toll than the sinking of a ferry in South Korea in April 2014 that killed 304 people, most of them children on a school trip. It is also China's worst shipping catastrophe in seven decades.

More than 1,400 family members have come to Jianli in the central province of Hubei, where the ship went down, with many expressing frustration at the lack of information from the government.

The government says that it is doing everything possible to help the relatives, including providing free accommodation and medical services, and on Saturday state television ran an interview with a tearful family member saying how happy she was with all their help.

Peng Jun, head of Hubei province's civil affairs bureau, told reporters the treatment of the families was "meticulous".

As for the crematorium, which some family members had tried in vain to enter to see the bodies of their loved ones, he said it had a reception center that would work with families.

Authorities would work to "satisfy their reasonable demands, and provide all conveniences to them", he said.

But relatives speaking to Reuters have expressed concern about security apparently being aimed at them, including the number of police cars parked outside of hotels where they are staying.

On Saturday morning, a daily government briefing for family members was cut short after an argument broke out with a representative of the local government. One woman was carried out of the briefing after she fainted.

"There is no information at all. Everyday we're here procrastinating, wasting time. There's no clear-cut answers, there's no progress to inform us of," said Wang Shuang, 24, whose mother and uncle were on the boat.

The government is bringing in equipment to store the bodies, many of which are in an advanced state of decomposition, as well as DNA experts to help with identification.

In a sign of respect for the victims, state television will suspend certain programs and advertisements that "highlight celebrations" for the next three days, Xinhua news agency said.

Saturday 6 June 2015


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