More Than 400 Are Missing, Feared Drowned in Yangtze Cruise Disaster

china-easternstar-jun22015.jpg Yangtze River cruise boat Eastern Star in an undated photo.
File Photo

At least five people died and more than 400 were missing, feared drowned, on Tuesday after a four-decker cruise boat capsized in foul weather on China's Yangtze river.

Rescue workers had rescued 15 of the mostly elderly passengers by late Tuesday evening after thousands of People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops including specialist diving teams were sent to the area amid an ongoing heavy downpour.

Photos of the scene showed rescue teams standing on the upturned hull of the overturned Eastern Star river cruiser, which capsized in the central province of Hubei during a severe storm Monday night with 458 people on board.

The tragedy left relatives shell-shocked, with many still not sure of their loved ones' fate, and others describing  a lack of transparency from the government amid tight controls on information.

The son of 71-year-old Jiangsu passenger Gao Shengliang said he had traveled to Jianli county on Tuesday, along with around a dozen other relatives of those missing, in a bid to get more information.

"They haven't gotten in touch with us, so all we can do is go online to try to find out what happened," said the man, who gave only his surname Gao.

"We went to the [Wuxi] municipal government, and they met with us, but they told us to wait for news," he said. "They didn't arrange for us [to travel to the scene], so we went there as soon as we could by ourselves."

"I went with some of the other relatives. Of course we're terribly worried," Gao said.

Ruling Chinese Communist Party secretary for Jianli county Wan Shuguang told RFA that tourism bureau officials are currently working to have relatives of those involved in the accident lodged at hotels in Hubei's provincial capital, Wuhan.

"Officials from all the [affected] regions, including tourism bureau officials, are taking the relatives to Wuhan," Wan said.

"We have sent out more than 400 workers, one to take care of each family member," he said. "We are asking them to stay overnight in Wuhan, because there is very heavy rain here still, and the expressways are dangerous."

Ship sank in minutes

The passengers on the Eastern Star had been on a long river cruise from the eastern port city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing, on the type of package holiday that is commonly marketed to senior citizens.

According to the ship's captain and chief engineer, who survived, the ship went down "within one or two minutes" of being caught in freak weather in Hubei's Jianli county at around 9.30 p.m. local time, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Tour guide Zhang Hui, 43, who also escaped with injuries, told the agency that the ship had begun to list violently, sending bottles rolling off tables, as torrential rain began leaking into cabins.

"Looks like we are in trouble," Zhang said to a colleague, grabbing a life-jacket, and before long, the ship had turned turtle in the 15-meters deep turbulent waters of the Yangtze, he recalled.

Barely escaping from the upended vessel, Zhang, who can't swim, said he had drifted in the river all night before being washed ashore at dawn.

Xinhua said the accident, blamed on weather like "a cyclone" by Eastern Star's captain, was likely the worst to hit China "for decades."

Most of the passengers were in their 60s and 70s, although there were some as young as three and some in their eighties, adding that three survivors, aged 37, 42, and 50, are being treated in a Hubei hospital.

Rescue services were mobilized after receiving a call from a bystander at 10.10 p.m., and picked up the captain from the river soon after, official reports said.

"[The Eastern Star went down] so fast that the captain did not even have the time to send out a distress signal," Xinhua quoted maritime rescue official Wang Yangsheng as saying.

The Eastern Star is operated by the state-owned Chongqing Wanzhou Dongfang Shipping Co., and was carrying a complement of 406 passengers, five tour guides and 47 crew.

More than 100 of the passengers had booked a package tour with the state-run Shanghai Xiehe Travel Agency, Xinhua said.

Senior officials present

Premier Li Keqiang and a team of high-ranking Beijing officials traveled to the disaster site on Tuesday to direct operations, while President Xi Jinping ordered a task force to look into the causes behind the accident.

"As for the causes of the accident, there is a task force that is investigating this, but I am not currently aware of the actual cause of the accident at this time," Wan Shuguang said.

"The rescue operation is still under way, under the direction of the State Council [China's cabinet] and the provincial government," he said.

"We in the county government are taking charge of support services for the aftermath of the accident, including preparing hospitals and funeral services."

Repeated calls to the Jianli County People's Hospital rang unanswered on Tuesday.

As is typical with fast-breaking disaster stories since the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, China's tightly controlled state media has had exclusive access to the disaster site, and Xinhua and state-run CCTV have been the sole source of live footage and updates from the scene.

All information was being channeled via Xinhua, under a "unified" information policy, an official who answered the phone at the State Council's tourism bureau told RFA.

"This has all been reported in the media," the official said. "If you want to interview someone in the tourism bureau, you need to send an interview request letter."

"All the information is coming from the scene, led by the government, and we are just collaborating in this department," the official said.

An employee who answered the phone at the Chongqing Wanzhou Dongfang Shipping Co. declined to comment on the disaster.

"This situation is being dealt with; people are being rescued. We are not in charge of that here," the employee said, before hanging up.

Numerous problems

According to Xinhua, police, maritime authorities and fire departments have dispatched a total of 36 ships to the scene and another 117 boats have joined the operation. More than 1,840 soldiers, 1,600 police and 1,000 civilians have been mobilized in the rescue effort.

A preliminary investigation found that the ship did not exceed its capacity, and was equipped with sufficient life jackets. All those rescued were wearing life jackets, the agency said.

Beijing has suffered a number of high profile blows to its transportation safety record in recent years, with a storm of public criticism unleashed in the wake of the 2011 high-speed train crash near the eastern city of Wenzhou, south of Shanghai.

Regulators have also pointed out numerous problems with the country's ageing and ubiquitous river cruise ships, one of which caught fire on April 20, 2013 on the Yangtze at Wuhan, although all aboard were rescued.

Three months later, a safety report from the Nanjing maritime bureau said that life jackets on one vessel it inspected were kept under lock and key.

And two months earlier, eight people died after a similar passenger vessel collided with a cargo barge on the same stretch of river in Jianli county, official media reports said at the time.

Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.