JIANLI, China – The Eastern Star’s top-deck cabins with smashed blue roofs jutted out of grey water Friday after Chinese disaster teams righted the capsized river cruiser to ease the search for more than 340 people still missing. So far, 97 bodies have been found.
Crews worked on draining water from the ship, which was still mostly submerged in the Yangtze River, as the focus shifted from finding survivors to retrieving bodies trapped in the vessel after it capsized suddenly during a storm Monday night on the trip from Nanjing to Chongqing.
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.
Cranes righted the boat Friday morning after some 50 divers attach chains to it overnight, Transportation Ministry spokesman Xu Chengguang said, adding that disaster teams would now focus on draining off water, and finding and identifying bodies. Divers also found more bodies overnight, bringing the death toll to 97, Xu said.
Police and paramilitary troops stationed on the riverbank have blocked access to the site, and authorities have tightly controlled media coverage.
Records show the capsized ship was cited for safety violations during an inspection in 2013, according to a Nanjing’s Maritime Safety report, which didn’t specify the violations.
The shallow-draft boat was not designed to withstand winds as heavy as an ocean-going vessel can. Weather authorities have said the storm the boat encountered had winds up to 130 kilometres (80 miles) per hour.
China’s deadliest maritime disaster in recent decades was the Dashun ferry, which caught fire and capsized off Shandong province in November 1999, killing about 280.
The Eastern Star disaster could become the country’s worst since the sinking of the SS Kiangya off Shanghai in 1948, which is believed to have killed anywhere from 2,750 to nearly 4,000 people.