Agony and ex­as­per­a­tion

Vic­tims’ fam­i­lies get few an­swers but many shad­ows at the site of Chi­nese ship tragedy.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Julie Maki­nen

JIANLI, China — Stella Wu ar­rived in this sleepy agri­cul­tural town on the north bank of the Yangtze River on Fri­day in the hope of re­triev­ing her 51-year-old mother’s corpse from the cap­sized Eastern Star cruise ship.

For days she had sought help and an­swers about the tragedy from her home in Shang­hai. She stood out­side the lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fice un­til 1 a.m., but staffers would say only that they had no in­for­ma­tion from the scene and that the lead­ers were in a meet­ing.

Next, she and other rel­a­tives of miss­ing pas­sen­gers de­cided to march on a busy street to try to get au­thor­i­ties to pay at­ten­tion. Po­lice came and dis­persed them, drag­ging and hit­ting peo­ple, she said.

Fi­nally she bought a train ticket to Jianli, only to find that peo­ple from her neigh­bor­hood com­mit­tee had pur­chased seats on the same train — os­ten­si­bly to help her, but clearly also to keep tabs on her.

As night fell Fri­day and work­ers fin­ished lift­ing the crum­pled blue-and-white ship up­right with gi­ant cranes and bring­ing it to shore, with per­haps more than 300 bod­ies in­side, Wu was ex­hausted and a bit ex­as­per­ated.

“We can’t go to the morgue or the site of the res­cue,” she said, slip­ping away from her min­ders for a few mo­ments. “We need to unite and make clear what our de­mands are. We will not make trou­ble and not cry any­more; we have used up all of our tears. We just want to know the truth.”

Four full days af­ter the Eastern Star went down amid a storm with 458 peo­ple aboard, the pa­tience of Wu and other be­reaved fam­ily mem­bers was wear­ing thin. Only 14 peo­ple are known to have sur­vived the dis­as­ter, 102 have been con­firmed dead and more than 340 are un­ac­counted for.

Af­ter dark, work­ers in white haz­mat suits be­gan en­ter­ing the dam­aged ship, and of­fi­cials said it prob­a­bly would take about seven

hours to ex­tract the corpses.

Res­i­dents and of­fi­cials in Jianli have tried to roll out the red car­pet for an es­ti­mated 1,500 next of kin, as well as jour­nal­ists and res­cue per­son­nel. Hun­dreds of taxis and pri­vate ve­hi­cles are of­fer­ing free rides, hair sa­lons are giv­ing com­pli­men­tary washes and cuts, and at least one photo-de­vel­op­ing shop was print­ing the cus­tom­ary Chi­nese fu­ner­ary por­traits at no charge.

More than 200 lo­cals vol­un­teered rooms in their homes af­ter ho­tels sold out. Dee­jays on Ra­dio Jianli were play­ing match­maker be­tween those who needed ac­com­mo­da­tions and those with space to spare.

Such mea­sures were un­doubt­edly aimed at con­sol­ing — but also con­trol­ling — rel­a­tives. Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has or­dered a “thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion” of the dis­as­ter, yet au­thor­i­ties have also em­pha­sized the need to “main­tain so­cial sta­bil­ity,” which is Com­mu­nist Par­tys­peak for pre­vent­ing any ma­jor protests. Next of kin were dis­persed through­out Jianli in ho­tels and guest houses, of­ten ac­com­pa­nied around town by es­corts.

Fam­ily mem­bers of vic­tims com­plained Fri­day that au­thor­i­ties had not re­leased the names of any of the dead nor told rel­a­tives when they might be able to claim their loved ones’ re­mains. Although me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal of­fi­cials have said a freak tor­nado oc­curred in the area, in­ves­ti­ga­tors have not dis­closed any pre­lim­i­nary find­ings.

The ship’s cap­tain and chief en­gi­neer were among the sur­vivors and are in po­lice cus­tody. In an in­ter­view pub­lished Fri­day, the cap- tain said he was at­tempt­ing to speed up and get the ves­sel mov­ing in the di­rec­tion of the wind when it sud­denly over­turned.

The brief re­marks from Zhang Shun­wen, car­ried by the state-run New China News Agency, seemed likely to fuel fur­ther ques­tions about whether he used good judg­ment as he nav­i­gated through in­clement weather and how se­vere the winds were. Weather of­fi­cials have said the storm car­ried winds up to 12 on the Beau­fort scale, or more than 73 mph.

Zhang told the news agency that the wind had been blow­ing from the south at a level 3 or 4 on the Beau­fort scale, or be­tween about 8 and 18 mph, and that he was at­tempt­ing to ma­neu­ver the Eastern Star into align­ment with the wind.

“I wanted to go with the wind, mov­ing north,” he said, ac­cord­ing to the agen- cy. “I wanted to use speed to lessen the wind’s force on the boat, but all of a sud­den the wind be­came much stronger and I lost con­trol of the ship.”

Wu and other fam­ily mem­bers ex­pressed skep­ti­cism of of­fi­cial re­ports em­pha­siz­ing weather over hu­man er­ror as a pri­mary cause of the ac­ci­dent. Public con­fi­dence in gov­ern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tions of dis­as­ters has been sorely tested by nu­mer­ous in­stances in re­cent years of coverups and at­tempts to limit in­de­pen­dent news cov­er­age as well as crit­i­cal com­ments and ques­tions on so­cial me­dia.

“Don’t tell me about a tor­nado. I’ve asked lo­cals and no­body said they’ve ever heard of hav­ing a tor­nado be­fore. And if you do say there was a tor­nado, why was it just this ship that con­tin­ued to sail while other ships were docked?” Wu asked. “We want to know why this de­ci­sion was made. We want to know more an­swers to this.”

A Trans­porta­tion Min­istry spokesman, Xu Cheng­guan, has vowed that “we will never shield mis­takes and we’ll ab­so­lutely not cover up” any­thing.

But Zhang Xiao­hui, a re­porter for the Chi­nese pub­li­ca­tion Eco­nomic Ob­server, said that he was de­tained by au­thor­i­ties af­ter go­ing to the ship com­pany’s of­fices in Chongqing on Tues­day and re­port­ing that he had dis­cov­ered em­ploy­ees shred­ding doc­u­ments. Zhang said in a so­cial-me­dia post that he was held un­der the po­ten­tial charge of spread­ing ru­mors on­line.

In 2002 and 2003, Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties down­played the num­ber of vic­tims of se­vere acute re­s­pi­ra­tory syn­drome, or SARS, and even hid pa­tients when World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion of­fi­cials vis­ited the coun­try to try to de­ter­mine the ex­tent of the epi­demic.

In 2011, when a high­speed train crash in Wen­zhou killed 40 peo­ple and in­jured nearly 200, au­thor­i­ties quickly piv­oted from searc­hand-res­cue ef­forts to clear­ing the scene, even at­tempt­ing to bury one of the de­stroyed cars a day af­ter the crash.

In Jan­uary, af­ter a New Year’s Eve stam­pede left 36 peo­ple dead in Shang­hai, of­fi­cials tried to pre­vent rel­a­tives of vic­tims from talk­ing to jour­nal­ists, and po­lice vis­ited peo­ple who posted crit­i­cal com­ments on­line. News out­lets were or­dered to rely only on ac­counts from state-run sources such as CCTV or the New China News Agency.

Zhan Jiang, a jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor at Bei­jing For­eign Stud­ies Uni­ver­sity, summed up the themes of CCTV’s cov­er­age of the Eastern Star dis­as­ter on Fri­day. “It’s a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter, not caused by hu­man er­ror; the res­cue is dif­fi­cult but the res­cue team tried their best,” he said. “Don’t show any footage of the pain of fam­i­lies. The two naval divers are the he­roes.”

In Jianli, the pain of fam­ily mem­bers was clearly on dis­play Fri­day. One woman barged into a news con­fer­ence and yelled at of­fi­cials, de­mand­ing that they show more re­spect to rel­a­tives.

A 20-year-old man, sur­named Duan, said he came from the nearby city of Wuhan, search­ing for news about his un­cle who was aboard the ship. But he was re­fused en­try at the morgue and couldn’t find a ho­tel room.

“I heard gov­ern­ment al­lo­cated 10 mil­lion ren­minbi [$1.6 mil­lion] to re­lief ef­forts, but they can’t prop­erly treat fam­ily mem­bers like us,” he said. “I told my cousin, don’t come down here be­cause there’s noth­ing for you to do, un­less you want to start some trou­ble. But he still wants to come; he says if his fa­ther is alive, he wants to see him, and if he’s dead, he wants to see the body.”

Many next of kin were wor­ried that au­thor­i­ties would cre­mate the corpses with­out let­ting them see them first. In 2013, 46 vic­tims of a land­slide in Yun­nan prov­ince were cre­mated be­fore rel­a­tives could view the re­mains. At the time, of­fi­cials said the de­ci­sion was made be­cause the faces were uniden­ti­fi­able and look­ing at the dis­fig­ured bod­ies might cause “emo­tional fluc­tu­a­tions” among the fam­ily mem­bers.

One woman from Fu­jian, who re­fused to give her name, said she had been in Jianli for sev­eral days seek­ing news about her 46-yearold nephew.

“I’m re­ally heart­bro­ken now be­cause af­ter so many days the body will be so de­com­posed,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “We can’t even touch their f lesh be­cause pieces might fall off.”

Still, she said, “of course I want to see the body. That’s very im­por­tant to us.”

Chinatopix

ALONG THE YANGTZE RIVER, work­ers in haz­mat suits wait to re­cover bod­ies from the Eastern Star tourist ship af­ter it is righted by cranes.

Wu Hong Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

RES­I­DENTS IN JIANLI, China, light can­dles for those miss­ing or dead af­ter a tourist ship cap­sized with 458 peo­ple aboard. Only 14 peo­ple are known to have sur­vived, and 102 had been con­firmed dead.

Jo­hannes Eisele AFP/Getty Images

REL­A­TIVES of those aboard the ship are es­corted away af­ter break­ing through a po­lice cor­don. Fam­i­lies said of­fi­cials had not re­leased names of any of the dead.

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