Hope Fades For Passengers in China's Yangtze Cruise Disaster

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Local residents hold a candlelight vigil to pay their respects to victims of the sunken Eastern Star, June 4, 2015.
Local residents hold a candlelight vigil to pay their respects to victims of the sunken Eastern Star, June 4, 2015.

Dozens of dead bodies were pulled on Thursday from the upended wreckage of the Eastern Star, which sank in the Yangtze river on Monday in the central Chinese province of Hubei, as rescue workers righted the vessel in the wake of the worst shipping disaster to hit the country in decades.

"The search and rescue team started to right the capsized cruise ship on the Yangtze River at 8 p.m.," the official Xinhua news agency quoted ministry of transport officials as saying.

The ship was hoisted upright by huge cranes after hopes of finding anyone left alive in the stricken river-cruiser faded following Monday night's disaster, which officials have blamed on a "tornado."

The death toll continued to rise throughout Thursday, reaching more than 70 by the evening, but more than 370 of the mostly elderly cruise passengers are still missing, presumed drowned.

In a hint at the horrific scenes which likely await rescue workers, Xinhua said: "The plan will facilitate searching through every cabin of the cruise ship to find any missing people as soon as possible."

The agency said the sinking of the Eastern Star, which listed in freak weather in Hubei's Jianli county before turning turtle in 15 meters of fast-flowing, turbid river water, "could become China's deadliest shipping accident in almost seven decades."

Only 14 people are known so far to have survived the wreck, it said.

Divers hindered

Rescue divers have struggled against almost total lack of visibility in the murky waters of the Yangtze, and officials have ordered the massive Three Gorges Dam to reduce the flow of water downstream from 17,200 cubic meters per second to 7,000 cubic meters per second, in a bid to help the rescue effort, Xinhua said.

Rescuers had earlier pulled out two passengers who had survived from an air pocket trapped under the upturned vessel after cutting a hole in the steel hull, the agency said.

But it said the priority has now shifted to removal of the hundreds of dead bodies that likely remain trapped inside.

Meanwhile, relatives of the Eastern Star's passengers said they were increasingly distraught after waiting nearly 72 hours for news of their loved ones.

"No, we haven't [heard anything]," one relative who is waiting for news of a passenger in Jianli county told RFA on Thursday.

"We don't know anything, and we all feel terrible right now," the relative said, before hanging up the phone.

A relative of a passenger from the eastern province of Jiangsu surnamed Gao said he and a group of other relatives had been refused permission to visit the scene of the rescue on Thursday afternoon.

"We have been allowed to watch from [a nearby pier], but we weren't allowed to go over there," Gao said. "We are a long way from the rescue site, and we can't really see much."

"It is raining heavily, so visibility is poor," he added.

'Doing what they can'

Civil affairs ministry spokesman Zhang Shifeng told reporters that officials are doing everything they can to support the relatives of the missing passengers.

"We have set up a task force to offer support and other services to the relatives," Zhang said. "The support is taking place both in Hubei and in the hometowns and provinces of the relatives."

A volunteer surnamed Hu said she was engaged in bringing meals to rescue workers, but that civilians hadn't been allowed near the wreck site, either.

"I don't know what's going on there, because I never went there, only to the place where the rescue workers get their meals," Hu said.

"Everyone is very worried [about the prospect of a rising death toll] and [the relatives] have tried to get to the scene, and also to the government buildings," she said.

Another relative surnamed Lin said many relatives are simply clustered in their hotel rooms, eyes glued to the TV news, which mostly consists of repeated reports.

"We are just watching the news the whole time, but it's slow in coming," Lin said. "Our family really wants to hear about any new developments as quickly as possible, and here we are, stuck in front of the TV news."

"They have been reporting on this nonstop in recent days, but they just keep repeating reports," she said.

Journalists blocked

China's official censors on Wednesday issued a directive banning Chinese journalists from traveling to the site of the wreck of the Eastern Star cruise ship in the central province of Hubei to cover the disaster.

All news outlets must rely instead on written reports from Xinhua and on TV footage from state-run broadcaster CCTV, which has exclusive access to the rescue scene, it said.

And online censors have also been deleting almost any reference to the disaster on social media sites, including simple retweets of official news items, according to the Free Weibo website.

Zhang Shunwen, 52, captain of the Eastern Star, has been held by police since Tuesday after being picked up from the river near Hubei's Yueyang city after the ship capsized at around 9.30 p.m. local time on Monday.

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





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