Many tears, few answers at site of China ship tragedy; death toll jumps to 406

Cranes raise the sunken vessel Eastern Star in the Yangtze River in Jianli, central China's Hubei province.

Cranes raise the sunken vessel Eastern Star in the Yangtze River in Jianli, central China’s Hubei province.

(AFP/Getty Images)

Stella Wu arrived in this sleepy agricultural town on the north bank of the Yangtze River on Friday in hopes 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 at home in Shanghai. She stood outside the local government office until 1 a.m., but staffers would only say 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, she said, came and dispersed them, dragging and hitting people.

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 brief moments. “We need to unite and make clear what our demands are. We will not make trouble and not cry any more -- 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 Friday. Only 14 people were known to have survived the disaster.

After dark, workers in white hazmat suits began entering the damaged ship and officials said it would probably take about seven hours to extract the corpses inside. By late Saturday, the death toll had climbed to 406, with 36 people still unaccounted for.

Residents and officials in Jianli have tried to roll out the red carpet for Wu and an estimated 1,500 next-of-kin, as well as visiting 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.

Over 200 locals volunteered rooms in their homes after hotels sold out. Deejays on Radio Jianli, FM 100.7, were playing matchmaker between those who needed accommodations and those who had space to spare.

Such measures were undoubtedly aimed at consoling – but also controlling – next-of-kin. 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 Party-speak for preventing any major protests. Next of kin were dispersed across hotels and guest houses in Jianli, and often accompanied around town by escorts.


Family members of victims complained Friday that authorities have not released the names of any of the deceased, 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 captain and the chief engineer were among the survivors, and are being held in police custody. In an interview published Friday, the captain 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 just how severe the winds were at the time. Weather officials have said the storm brought 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 south to north 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 agency. “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 cover-ups and attempts to limit independent media 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?” she asked. “We want to know why this decision was made. We want to know more answers to this.”

A spokesman for the Transportation Ministry, 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 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 spent months downplaying the number of victims of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, and even hid patients when officials from the World Health Organization visited the country to try determine the extent of the epidemic.

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

In January, after a New Year’s Eve stampede that 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 they show more respect to next-of-kin.

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 next of kin.

One woman from Fujian, who refused to give her name, said she had been in Jianli for several days seeking news about her 46-year-old 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 flesh because pieces might fall off.” Still, she said, “of course I want to see the body. That’s very important to us.”

Tommy Yang, Nicole Liu and Harvard Zhang of the Times Beijing bureau contributed to this report.