Jianli, (China) | The death toll in the Chinese cruise ship that capsized in the mighty Yangtze river jumped to nearly 400 today as over 200 more bodies were pulled out, making it China’s deadliest boat disaster in 70 years as rescuers culminated their four days of relief operations.
The body of the youngest victim of the tragedy, a three- year-old girl, was among the hundreds more bodies retrieved from the murky waters after disaster response teams stabilised the cruiser in an upright position, according to officials in the rescue headquarters in Jianli, central China’s Hubei Province. So far 396 bodies have been recovered from the four-storey cruise ship while a total of 46 people are still missing.
Authorities requested that river traffic and others along the river alert them if they noticed any floating bodies. Only 14 survivors, including the captain and chief engineer who swam to the shore, have been found after the ship carrying 456 Chinese holiday-makers, mostly elderly, sank within two minutes on Monday night.
Today, the body of the youngest victim, a three-year-old girl, was found on the fourth floor of the upturned ship, which was righted and hoisted out of water. The ship was on an 11-day trip along the Yangtze when it overturned in Jianli in central China’s Hubei Province. Authorities have attributed the overturning of the ship to sudden, severe winds, but have placed the captain and his first engineer under police custody pending investigation.
Disaster teams yesterday put chains around the hull and used cranes to completely righted the 2,200-tonne ship and then gradually lift it out of the waters of the Yangtze after an overnight risky operation, three days after the capsize.
Meanwhile, Jiang Zhao, legal representative of Chongqing Dongfang Shipping Company that owns the Eastern Star, late last night apologised to all the victims and their families and promised to cooperate with any investigation, state-run news agency Xinhua reported. The 76.5-meter vessel had been in service for nearly 20 years and can carry up to 534 people. It went through an annual maintenance in late 2014, and was qualified to cruise until April 25, 2016, according to Jiang.
More than 3,400 soldiers and 1,700 police together with 149 vessels and a helicopter have taken part in the rescue mission. Over 1,400 relatives today converged on this town and paid tributes to their dear ones at the shore. Officials are taking DNA samples to establish the identity of the bodies.
All cabins on the ship have now been sterilised to prevent any possible outbreak of disease. In a sign of mourning, China’s state and other major TV channels have suspended some entertainment programmes from today. Programmes or advertisements highlighting celebrations will also be withdrawn for the next three days. The Eastern Star disaster became the country’s worst since the sinking of the SS Kiangya off Shanghai in 1948, which is believed to have killed anywhere from 2,750 to nearly 4,000 people.
Authorities have been struggling to tackle public fury, with clashes between the relatives of the people on board the ill-fated ship and officials. A daily government briefing this morning for family members was cut short after an argument broke out with a representative of the local government.
Passengers’ relatives have raised questions about whether the ship should have continued its cruise after the storm started in a section of Hubei province and despite a weather warning earlier in the evening. More than 3,400 soldiers and 1,700 police together with 149 vessels and a helicopter have taken part in the search and rescue mission.
Meanwhile, rescuers are trying to shed load from the Eastern Star to help it float on water by itself, as mattresses, sofas and quilts that rolled to the left side of the ship have absorbed too much water, making it hard for the cruiser to stay float. The ship is currently held afloat by three floating cranes.
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