Families seek answers in capsizing
Chinese authorities give up hope of finding survivors and begin lifting the boat.
BEIJING — More than 1,000 people whose relatives were presumed lost aboard a capsized Chinese cruise ship converged Thursday on towns near the site, seeking answers about the disaster and offering DNA samples to help identify corpses.
By early Friday, recovery workers had begun trying to lift the submerged ship upright using two large, barge-borne cranes as hope of finding survivors slipped away, turning the vessel 90 degrees onto its side at one point.
“There is slim chance that we will find more survivors inside the hull,” said Xu Chengguang, a spokesman for the Transportation Ministry. “We have made the general judgment that there is no possibility of survival.”
Xu said the decision would help find the missing “in the shortest possible time” and “protect the dignity of the deceased.”
On Thursday, about 200 taxis and 1,500 private vehicles with yellow ribbons tied around their side-view mirrors were organized into a volunteer fleet to greet arriving family members at highway toll plazas and other transportation junctions in Jianli county, south of Wuhan in Hubei province.
A number of hotels said they were offering free accommodations to family members, and police called on locals to volunteer available rooms. But some next of kin complained that they had not been allowed to visit the site of the sinking and were essentially trapped in their hotel rooms, watching state-run TV and surfing the Internet for the latest news, without any special briefings.
“Five members of my family are there, but they can’t go to the rescue site. People take them out to eat, to ‘keep them company,’ but I think they want to keep a close eye on them,” said Lin Li, 20, whose grandfather, Lin Weizhu, was aboard the vessel. “They are recovering more bodies each day, but they haven’t released any names.”
Authorities said Thursday afternoon that 82 bodies had been recovered and 14 survivors had been found from the Eastern Star, which sank in the Yangtze River on Monday night with 458 peo- ple aboard amid bad weather en route from Nanjing to Chongqing.
More than 360 corpses may still be aboard the vessel. Late Wednesday, rescue workers cut several holes into the hull in hopes of discovering survivors trapped in air pockets but found none.
State-run news media have taken pains to emphasize the official response, noting Thursday that the Politburo Standing Committee had convened a meeting on the disaster, overseen by President Xi Jinping. The central government said it had appropriated $1.6 million as an emergency fund to support the rescue-and-recovery operations.
But relatives desperate for answers have clashed with local officials in Shanghai and other cities, complaining they have been denied timely information about the capsized ship. State-run CCTV said 1,200 relatives had arrived in the Jianli area as of midafternoon Thursday.
At one morgue in Jianli, officials had prepared large information boards to help with the identification of bodies; charts had spaces for a photo of the deceased along with details about where their remains could be found in the facility.
Huang Zhen, chief of Jianli county, said all the corpses would be brought to local morgues and DNA samples would be taken, then relatives would be con- tacted. A Ministry of Civil Affairs official, Zhang Shifeng, said that extra temperaturecontrolled coffins had been delivered to morgues and that morticians had been summoned from Wuhan to help prepare the bodies for viewing.
Zhang said preparations were being made to help next of kin visit the site of the capsized ship but added, “Right now we cannot fully satisfy the passengers’ relatives’ demands.”
How long it might take to extricate the corpses from the Eastern Star and identify the remains was unclear. But authorities said that with nearly 72 hours having passed since the ship flipped over, there was no chance of finding anyone else alive.
“The international routine regards 72 hours as the standard line of life,” Wang Zhigang, a local manager from the China Classification Society, a ship safety agency, told the state-run New China News Agency. “Up until that time, [we] have to make all efforts to determine whether there is life or not.”
The exact cause of the disaster remained unclear Thursday. Officials have said the cruise ship encountered a freak tornado shortly after 9 p.m. Monday. But myriad questions remained, including why the captain had continued his voyage when other ships along the waterway had anchored to wait out the inclement weather.
The captain and the chief engineer are among the 14 survivors and are in police custody, but authorities released no new information Thursday about their investigation of the sinking. The Transportation Ministry ordered the owner of the ship, Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp., to conduct a full examination of the rest of its ships and suspend operations of the Eastern Pearl, which was built using the same design as the Eastern Star.
Video of several other survivors convalescing in a hospital in Jianli was broadcast on CCTV. Zhu Hongmei, 65, who was rescued from the ship Tuesday afternoon, said she survived 15 hours trapped in the overturned vessel by clinging to a pole in an air pocket.
Another survivor, tour guide Jiang Geng, was rescued by fishermen who found him clinging to a life vest in the river at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. Xi Xiuming, a doctor from Beijing who was helping treat survivors in Jianli, said Jiang was under severe psychological pressure.
“There were many senior citizens in his group, many of them were long-standing clients,” Xi said. “They may all be dead, and so this is creating intense psychological stress for him.”
At the Jianli Millennium Hotel, all 30 rooms were full, primarily with next of kin but also a few journalists; some rooms had as many as six people, said the receptionist, a woman surnamed Chen. She said family members were being instructed to provide DNA samples to authorities. The proprietors of the hotel, she said, were providing free shelter to the grieving families.
Relatives of the passengers, along with some reporters, were being ferried around Jianli by volunteers with the ad hoc Yellow Ribbon Group. A representative of the group, surnamed Xiong, said cars with yellow ribbons had been dispatched to highway toll plazas to receive incoming next of kin, register their personal details and help them find accommodations in the city.
Lin, whose grandfather was aboard the vessel, said her family had last heard from him about 6 p.m. Monday when he had called his wife. He did not mention the ship had encountered poor weather, she said.
The 67-year-old was traveling with eight colleagues from his fruit and vegetable trading company; the 11-day Yangtze cruise was a reward for longtime employees.
“No one from the government or the travel company has contacted our family,” she said, speaking by phone from the city of Fuqing in Fujian province. “We don’t even know what cabin he was in.”
Lin said that she believed the storm contributed to the capsizing but that she still had many questions.
“From the reports I’ve seen, it does seem that the weather was bad; I do believe there could have been a tornado,” she said. “But other boats anchored. Why did this ship move forward? We need to hear the full investigation.”
TWO CRANES on barges are in position to lift the capsized Eastern Star on the Yangtze River in Jianli county, China. “We have made the general judgment that there is no possibility of survival,” an official said.
JIANLI RESIDENTS pay their respects to the boat victims. Relatives of passengers said they had not been allowed to visit the site of the sinking.