Chinese officials end rescue operations for 'Eastern Star' boat victims

Agence France-Presse
Cranes raise the sunken passenger ship in the Yangtze River on June 5, 2015. Relatives of passengers missing after the ship capsized expressed agony and anger after an official admitted there is no hope of finding more survivors.

Relatives of passengers missing after a Chinese cruise ship capsized expressed agony and anger on Friday after an official admitted there is no hope of finding more survivors, while cranes slowly raised the vessel out of the water.

Just 14 of the 456 people — mostly tourists aged over sixty — who were on board the "Eastern Star" when it overturned in a storm on Monday have been found alive.

A total of 97 have been confirmed dead, as floating cranes on Friday began to hoist the vessel where bodies of the more than 340 missing may still be trapped.

Rescuers decided to overturn the ship "on the general judgment that there is no possibility of survival," Xu Chengguang, a transport ministry spokesman, told a press conference late on Thursday.

He added Friday that the boat would be raised completely above the water's surface, allowing rescuers to search through it.

Gao Rufu, whose 62-year-old sister is among the dead, said, "I feel sad, so sad."

The possible death toll of 442 would make the sinking on the Yangtze river China's worst shipping disaster in nearly 70 years.

Reports citing witnesses said the boat overturned in under a minute, and weather officials said a freak tornado hit the area at the time.

Rescuers used massive cranes Thursday night to right the Eastern Star at the site of the disaster in Hubei province's Jianli county.

Images from state broadcaster CCTV on Friday showed the ship upright but with much of it still submerged. Work was proceeding to hoist it out of the water, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Lifting the 250-foot, 2,200 ton vessel is a delicate and risky operation that could destabilize the wreck.

Photos on Friday showed oil slicks in several places near the ship, and Xu said efforts were underway to contain the leakage.

In signs of the grim task ahead, an AFP journalist saw what appeared to be a full body bag being loaded onto a small boat near the vessel as well as another two small craft also carrying what appeared to be full body bags.

Relatives' anger

Information about the sinking and media access to the site have been tightly controlled, and any online criticism of the search operation quickly doused.

Relatives of those on board clashed with police earlier this week, and angry scenes occurred at an official press conference in Jianli on Friday.

"What we have received are the words, selected wisely, which are full of untruths," an elderly relative who sneaked into the briefing told reporters, before officials escorted her away.

A petition posted by family members on social media service WeChat called for "key state leaders" to apologize and an investigation into the shipping company and compensation.

It also demanded a "death sentence" for the ship's captain, one of the few survivors of the disaster, who is in police custody.

The state-run China Daily on Friday identified him as 52-year-old Zhang Shunwen, who it said has 35 years of experience and was rescued two hours after the accident by a patrol ship.

Local reports said other ships in the vicinity had dropped anchor after a warning of heavy storms, but the Eastern Star continued on.

Distraught relative Gao, who arrived in Jianli from China's commercial hub Shanghai seeking news of his sister, was convinced the skipper was to blame.

"Of course I am angry at the boat captain," he raged.

"How come other ships stopped, but his didn't?" Gao added, before an official told him not speak to reporters.

Zhang told Xinhua in what the agency described as an exclusive interview published late Thursday that he lost control of the vessel when winds suddenly strengthened.


Chong Ye, whose 55-year-old father and 53-year-old mother were on the boat, said he felt numb with the likelihood his parents were dead.

"I don't feel anything now. I'll just wait for the final result to think about the next step," he added, speaking from a train en route to the accident site from Shanghai, a trip organized by the local government.

The vessel was cited for safety infractions two years ago, according to a notice by the Nanjing Maritime Bureau, but no further details have been given about the state of the ship.

More than 1,200 relatives have arrived in Jianli, where they are being closely monitored by police.

Days of poor weather that hampered rescue operations cleared on Friday, while security was stepped-up outside Jianli's funeral parlor.

Local residents mobilized on Friday with a huge volunteer operation, with people taking the day off to offer support and transport to rescue workers and relatives.

Thousands of cars had yellow ribbons tied to their wing mirrors, to show that they were available for volunteer work.

"This is what we should do," said Tan Yun, a 39-year-old ethnic dance teacher, who was delivering cakes to a welcome center for relatives. "Heartbreak has come to my hometown."