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Rescuers describe gruesome recovery of Chinese ship victims

Chinese recover 406 corpses from Eastern Star; search of the vessel is now complete

Chinese military officials and soldiers described the grim task of removing hundreds of bodies from the salvaged wreckage of the capsized Eastern Star cruise ship Saturday as busloads of families gathered on the banks of the Yangtze River to mourn the dead.

Authorities who had worked through the night,  said Saturday that the search of the vessel had been completed. The confirmed death toll stood at 406. Fourteen people survived Monday night’s tragedy, and 36 people remain unaccounted for.

As soldiers and other personnel worked through the night wearing white hazmat suits and life jackets, searching with flashlights, they said they encountered hallways jammed with furniture and other debris. At times, the stench inside the ship was overpowering and many bodies were swollen, stiff or decomposed. Locked cabin doors and rooms filled with mud and silt also hampered the recovery work, and firefighters were called in at times to clear passageways.

More than 700 troops took part in the effort to remove the dead; a team of six was assigned to each body. Because the Eastern Star overturned in a remote area, the bodies had to be carried more than two miles to the closest road, then transported in vehicles to the mortuary in Jianli, a small agricultural town.

“When we entered the cabins, we all felt overcome by emotion,” said Zeng Xianmei, chief nurse at the paramilitary hospital in the nearby metropolis of Wuhan, choking up at a news conference.

Liu Xiaowu, chief of staff of a brigade from Guangzhou, said he was particularly determined to recover the remains of the youngest passenger, a 3-year-old girl on a trip with her grandparents. Her body was found in a first-class cabin on the upper deck.

“When our soldiers finally discovered her body, they all cried,” he said. “We all have children.”

Liu and other officials said work would now begin to collect victims’ personal effects from the Eastern Star.

Zhang Shifeng of the Ministry of Civil Affairs said authorities had worked out a routine for processing the bodies and that DNA had been collected from the 387 corpses that had arrived at mortuaries by Saturday afternoon.

Free funerals would be conducted in Jianli and two other nearby counties, he said. He added that authorities in neighboring Hunan province had notified him that 18 bodies had been found downstream there, but it had not been confirmed that they were victims from the Eastern Star. 

Zhang said compensation arrangements for families were still being worked out. 

Peng Jun of the local Hubei provincial office of the Ministry of Civil Affairs said authorities had spent over $1.6 million buying more than 400 freezer caskets for the victims. Earlier, hundreds of refrigerated coffins were brought to Jianli, but those were later deemed inadequate given how long the bodies were in the water. 

Peng said that once positive DNA matches were made, family members would be allowed to see the remains of their loved ones, though he cautioned that many were disfigured. Eighty-one undertakers have been brought to the area to help prepare the bodies. 

In China, the seventh day after a death is the first important day of commemoration. Asked if there were any plans for a group commemoration or memorial service on Sunday, the seventh day after the disaster, Zhang said there were no such plans because a group service would not be in accordance with Chinese tradition. But the Ministry of Transport later announced that a ceremony would be held Sunday morning.

Meanwhile, the owner of the company that owns the vessel apologized for the tragedy, China’s deadliest maritime disaster in decades.

Jiang Zhao, the owner of Chongqing Eastern Shipping, appeared late Friday night on state-run television and bowed in contrition, pledging to cooperate “fully” with investigators.

The exact cause of the capsizing remains unclear.  Meterological officials have said a freak tornado occurred in the area Monday night, and the captain of the ship -- who survived and remains in police custody -- has said he was attempting to reorient the Eastern Star so that it was sailing with the wind instead of against it.

More than 1,500 family members have descended on Jianli to recover the remains of their loved ones. On Saturday, hundreds were taken down to the riverside, where they placed bouquets of flowers, burned incense and wept.

The next-of-kin have been asked to provide blood samples to enable DNA matching to facilitate identification.

The Eastern Star disaster became the country's worst since the sinking of the passenger ship Kiangya off Shanghai in 1948, which is believed to have killed from 2,750 to nearly 4,000 people, the Associated Press reported.

China's deadliest maritime disaster in recent decades was the Dashun ferry, which caught fire and capsized off Shandong province in November 1999, killing about 280 people, said AP.

A number of broadcasters, including China Central Television, Jiangsu TV and Dragon TV announced that they would suspend some entertainment programs this weekend, replacing them with charity shows, in a sign of mourning.

Tommy Yang of the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report. 

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

9:03 a.m.: This article was updated with a new death toll.

6:42 a.m.: This article was updated additional details.

3:18 a.m.: This article was updated with quotes from Zhang Shifeng and Peng Jun, and with details from the Associated Press. 

This article was first posted at 1:22 a.m.

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