Hope fad­ing as China ex­tends river search

With hun­dreds still miss­ing two days af­ter a cruise ship cap­sized, fam­i­lies brace for the worst. Of­fi­cials say it was caught in a tor­nado.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Julie Maki­nen julie.maki­nen@la­times.com Twit­ter: @JulieMakLAT Tommy Yang and Har­vard Zhao in The Times’ Bei­jing bu­reau con­trib­uted to this report.

BEI­JING — Among the hun­dreds of peo­ple anx­iously wait­ing for word of their miss­ing loved ones aboard a cap­sized Chi­nese cruise ship, Xuan Yan ini­tially had per­haps a bit more rea­son to hope.

Many of the 456 peo­ple aboard the ves­sel were el­derly sight­seers on a bud­get 11-day Yangtze River trip. But her boyfriend, Chen Silu, was a spry 26-year-old tour com­pany em­ployee. More­over, two of his col­leagues were among the first sur­vivors res­cued af­ter the ship abruptly sank Monday night in what of­fi­cials said was an un­usu­ally pow­er­ful tor­nado.

“Your fam­ily, my fam­ily and I, and your good friends ... are all wait­ing for your news! Two of your col­leagues were alive!” Xuan wrote on her mi­croblog ac­count Tues­day evening. “I know you must be very cold and hun­gry now. But you have to hold on for us!”

Xuan rushed to the site of the sink­ing but found the area blocked off by au­thor­i­ties.

Des­per­ate for any shred of news, she posted her phone num­ber on­line. “If any­one at the scene has con­firmed in­for­ma­tion, please call my cell num­ber. Thank you!”

But as Wed­nes­day dawned with the ship still top-down in the river, Xuan’s frus­tra­tion mounted. Not only was she not re­ceiv­ing up­dates, but she even found her­self barred from send­ing out mes­sages — cen­sors ap­par­ently deemed her posts too sen­si­tive and blocked them from ap­pear­ing on­line.

“Right now, we’re just wait­ing for him,” she said in a brief phone con­ver­sa­tion Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon as the con­firmed death toll edged up to 26 and the tally of sur­vivors — 14 — failed to budge from Tues­day’s count.

Of­fi­cially, the op­er­a­tions at the site of the sink­ing of the East­ern Star re­mained an ac­tive res­cue ef­fort. But with more than 410 peo­ple still un­ac­counted for, hope was fad­ing fast, and the in­ci­dent ap­peared likely to be­come China’s worst mar­itime dis­as­ter in decades.

Au­thor­i­ties were strictly con­trol­ling in­for­ma­tion about the dis­as­ter, or­der­ing most do­mes­tic news out­lets to not send their re­porters to the scene but in­stead rely on ac­counts from the state-run New China News Agency and CCTV.

But the Yangtze River Daily re­ported that a mor­tu­ary in Jianli, the county near­est to the ac­ci­dent site, was pre­par­ing a large num­ber of coffins, and even CCTV broad­cast live im­ages of bod­ies be­ing pulled from the wa­ter.

Through­out the day, au- thor­i­ties were strug­gling to de­cide whether the best ap­proach was to at­tempt to right the ship or to lift it and cut into the hull in an ef­fort to find any­one still alive in air pock­ets.

Af­ter night­fall, of­fi­cials said they had be­gun cut­ting a hole, about 21 inches by 24 inches, in the bot­tom of the 2,000-ton ves­sel to give divers ac­cess.

But any breach of the hull might cause trapped air to es­cape, caus­ing the ship to lose buoy­ancy and sink deeper into the river.

Ear­lier, divers prob­ing the hull for sur­vivors re­ported en­coun­ter­ing dif­fi­cul­ties such as locked cabin doors and fur­ni­ture block­ing their way.

Mean­while, the search for peo­ple washed down­stream was ex­tended al­most 140 miles to Wuhan, said Xu Cheng­guang, a Trans­porta­tion Min­istry of­fi­cial.

As search, res­cue and re­cov­ery op­er­a­tions con­tin­ued, ques­tions mounted over how and why the ship cap­sized sud­denly Monday night. Ac­cord­ing to sur­vivors, the ves­sel en­coun­tered strong rain and wind af­ter 9 p.m.

Wu Cui­hong, head of the weather bu­reau in Wuhan, said dur­ing a tele­vised news con­fer­ence that an un­usu­ally large and highly con­cen­trated tor­nado about 0.6 miles in di­am­e­ter de­vel­oped right along the ves­sel’s path, last­ing 15 or 20 min­utes.

Li Yong jun, the cap­tain of a freighter that was near the East­ern Star just be­fore it cap­sized, told the New China News Agency that the weather was so se­vere he de­cided to an­chor and wait out the storm.

“The vis­i­bil­ity was ter­ri­ble, like be­ing in fog,” he said. “The rain was in­ter­fer­ing with the radar so you couldn’t make any­thing out.”

Why the cap­tain of the East­ern Star did not take sim­i­lar ac­tion re­mained un­clear. He and the ship’s chief en­gi­neer are among the 14 sur­vivors and re­main in po­lice cus­tody.

Zhong Shoudao of the Chongqing Ship­build­ing Design and Re­search In­sti­tute said ves­sels such as the East­ern Star are “B-class” boats de­signed for river travel, not open ocean, and con­ceiv­ably might be un­able to with­stand the winds gen­er­ated by a tor­nado.

In such an event, the cap­tain would not have time to or­ga­nize an or­derly evac­u­a­tion, Zhong said at the news con­fer­ence with Xu and Wu.

“It’s not like ‘Ti­tanic,’ ” where the ship’s hull was breached and be­gan to take on wa­ter and slowly sink, Zhong said.

But other ex­pe­ri­enced sea­men ex­pressed skep­ti­cism that even a freak twis­ter like the one Wu de­scribed could top­ple a ship such as the East­ern Star in a mat­ter of min­utes.

“It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble for wind to force a ship of this size to cap­size, as­sum­ing [the boat] meets all le­gal stan­dards,” Xue Yingchun, a ship cap­tain from Shang­hai with 23 years of ex­pe­ri­ence, said in a phone in­ter­view. “In the open sea, storms can gen­er­ate high waves, but the Yangtze is not very wide and a sud­den storm would not make very large waves.”

Xue also said a sud­den shift­ing of weight was also an un­likely sce­nario be­cause the East­ern Star was a cruise ship and not a ferry with au­to­mo­biles or other bulky cargo aboard.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors, he be­lieved, needed to fo­cus on whether ren­o­va­tions had made the ship heav­ier or af­fected its bal­ance, and whether the 1994 ship had been prop­erly main­tained.

“As a per­son in the in­dus­try, we’re all shocked and sad­dened by the large num­ber of lives lost,” he said. “It’s very im­por­tant to find out the cause so we can avoid this in the fu­ture.”

Au­thor­i­ties, he said, should not hes­i­tate to call in ex­perts from Ger­many, the U.S. or other coun­tries with ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in river mar­itime safety.

“If we find our na­tional stan­dards are too low, per­haps we can im­prove them, or if it’s a mat­ter of en­force­ment and clos­ing loop­holes, we need to re­flect on that too,” he said.

Yuan Zheng Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

RES­CUERS ob­serve a mo­ment of si­lence for the vic­tims whose bod­ies were re­cov­ered af­ter a Chi­nese cruise ship cap­sized Monday on the Yangtze River in Hubei prov­ince. More than 410 peo­ple are still un­ac­counted for.

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