China Blames 'Poor Management,' Weather for Yangtze Cruise Ship Disaster

The authorities recommend sacking or demoting 42 personnel and revoking the captain's license and contract.

Yangtze River cruise boat Eastern Star in an undated photo.

Management flaws and a lack of oversight were partly to blame for the Yangtze river cruise ship disaster that left 442 passengers and crew dead last June, according to an official report on the incident.

The Eastern Star capsized after it was hit by a "very rare" weather phenomenon in the central Chinese province of Hubei, a report published by China's cabinet, the State Council, found.

The ship was hit by a strong squall accompanied by a sudden torrential downpour of rain, the report said.

But it also blamed the Chongqing Eastern Shipping Co., which operated the vessel, and local government for "flaws in their daily management and supervision work."

The report recommended demotions or sackings for seven shipping company employees and for 36 local government and ruling Chinese Communist Party officials, the official news agency Xinhua reported.

In particular, it recommended that the ship's captain, Zhang Shunwen, who survived, should have his skipper's license revoked and his contract terminated.

The authorities are now probing whether Zhang, who was detained shortly after his rescue, should also face criminal charges.

Warning ignored

The Eastern Star overturned at around 9:28 p.m. on June 1 near Hubei's Jianli city. Only 12 of the 456 people on board, most of whom were retired tourists, survived.

Officials had said at the time that the ship was hit by a weather phenomenon they described as "a tornado."

Relatives of those who died had previously questioned whether the ship should have sailed at all, given that a weather warning was in place at the time.

A relative surnamed Lin said many of the relatives of the victims welcomed the sanctions, but said that many doubts remain.

"This incident had a devastating impact on our family, so we can't say that we are exactly satisfied with this result," she said. "We will accept it as the reality that we face, however."

Lin said the report lacked detail about what happened aboard the Eastern Star in the crucial moments before it capsized.

"We have had doubts and questions since this happened, especially about a refit to the cabin that we heard about, and about whether it was possible to get out of the exits," Lin said. "But the report didn't address this."

Exits blocked

Reports have indicated that the ship was streamlined from its original design in 1997, removing individual cabin doors that once opened onto an exterior gangway, and turning them into windows.

Relatives have suggested that these changes made it harder to escape once the boat ran into trouble, as passengers would need to squeeze into crowded internal corridors to reach the exits.

A relative surnamed Qu, who lost both parents in the disaster, called on the authorities to hold a meeting with the relatives of victims to answer their questions and concerns.

"I don't think it's fair for them to blame it all on the weather," Qu said.

"Why did they do so much investigating if they were only going to blame it on the storm, on the weather?"

"If they are sanctioning so many people, then this must have been a man-made disaster, [not a natural one]," Qu said.

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.