Update | Death toll from capsized Eastern Star in China climbs to nearly 400 as ship company offers apology
The death toll from the Eastern Star cruise ship disaster reached nearly 400 today, making it China’s deadliest boat disaster in nearly seven decades.
More bodies from the Eastern Star were found overnight and today, bringing the death toll to 396, Hu Kaihong, the vice director-general of the press bureau of the State Council Information Office, told a news conference.
Rescue teams searched for more bodies in the now-upright ship, which had capsized on the Yangtze River late on Monday. Authorities have attributed the accident to sudden, severe winds, but also have placed the surviving captain and his first engineer under police custody.
The boat had more than 450 people aboard, many of them tourists aged over 60, for a cruise from Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing.
A total of 46 people remain missing, but a government spokesman said on Thursday that no new survivors are expected to be found.
The top and bottom floors of the four-level ship are the current focus of the search, but because of the level of damage it may take some time to complete, state television said.
Online images showed workers from surgical suits handling body bags in the vessel’s dark cabins, while others slept on a nearby floating platform, exhausted by their grim work. At a nearby funeral parlour, men also in white suits were seen driving a convoy of about 20 minivans adapted to carry coffins towards the disaster site.
Among the rescue effort were more than 3,400 soldiers and 1,700 paramilitary police and 149 vessels, Xinhua said.
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The boat operator apologised and said it would cooperate with investigations.
Jiang Zhao, general manager of the company which operated the Eastern Star, bowed in apology for the disaster during an interview with state media reported late on Friday, saying they would "fully" cooperate with the investigation.
Beijing has pledged there would be "no cover-up" in the probe.
Police have detained the captain and chief engineer for questioning as part of the investigation. An initial probe found the ship was not overloaded and had enough life vests on board.
Reports citing witnesses said the 76.5-metre-long, 2,200-tonne ship overturned in under a minute, and weather officials said a freak tornado hit the area at the time.
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.
Investigators will probe the ship’s structure for flaws, state broadcaster CCTV said, after the ruling Communist party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee vowed to leave “no doubts remaining”, about the disaster.
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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.
Heavy rains in the Yangtze area over four days beginning on Monday have killed 15 people and left eight others missing, the Ministry of Civil Affairs said.
Fourteen people survived the cruise ship sinking, including three pulled out by divers from air pockets in the overturned hull on Tuesday.
Information about the sinking and media access to the site have been tightly controlled. Relatives of those on board clashed with police earlier this week, and an angry woman berated officials at a press conference in Jianli on Friday.
A group of relatives from Nanjing, the city in the eastern province of Jiangsu where the boat began its journey, argued with officials from their home town at a meeting in Jianli this morning.
A city official refused to make clear commitments to families about them receiving the bodies, showing “impatience”, a woman at the meeting surnamed Zhang said. He responded to questions by telling relatives they should do his job if they were not satisfied, she added.
“We have come all this way, but all we are doing is waiting,” said Jin Weifeng, who travelled from Shanghai to seek news of his mother-in-law Wang Shuisheng.
A petition posted by family members on social media service WeChat called for “key state leaders” to apologise, an investigation, compensation and the ”death sentence” for the ship’s captain, one of the few survivors of the disaster.
Disaster teams put chains around the hull and used cranes to roll the banged-up, white and blue boat upright and then gradually lifted it out of the gray currents of the Yangtze.
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.
The Eastern Star disaster could become 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.
Reporting by Reuters, AFP and AP