Agony and exasperation
Victims’ families get few answers but many shadows at the site of Chinese ship tragedy.
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.”
ALONG THE YANGTZE RIVER, workers in hazmat suits wait to recover bodies from the Eastern Star tourist ship after it is righted by cranes.
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.
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.