Yangtze cruise ship sinking
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Rescue workers atop the Eastern Star search for more bodies in the capsized cruise ship in the Jianli section of the Yangtze River on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters

Close calls with tragedy on the Yangtze River

Captain of another ship on the Yangtze says he dropped anchor in a storm while the Eastern Star went on and disappeared from view

Angela Meng

The captain of a passenger ship that was near the Eastern Star when it capsized on Monday night said his vessel narrowly escaped the same fate, according to a mainland media report.

The captain, identified only by his surname Li, told the that his passenger ship, the Jiangning, was sailing through the Jianli section of the Yangtze River at about 9.30pm on Monday, when the Eastern Star capsized.

Li said the Jiangning's radar indicated "something was wrong".

A storm descended so he decided to slow down, drop anchor and wait for the bad weather to pass.

But the Eastern Star, which was travelling in the same direction as the Jiangning, continued on down the river, according to the report.

"The Eastern Star proceeded about 200 metres farther when the Jiangning anchored," the report quoted Li as saying.

As the storm grew stronger, Li thought the Eastern Star would turn back, but it disappeared from sight and he could not get a response from crew members on the vessel over the radio communication system.

"I thought that the Eastern Star had returned to safety," he said.

The Jiangning continued on towards Chongqing about one hour later when the storm died down.

As the rescue efforts entered their second day yesterday, survivors of the Eastern Star offered their accounts of the tragedy.

One of them, 52-year-old Xie Lin, told Xinhua that he was excited to be on board the ship for a 12-day cruise with his wife, but things went very wrong at about 9.30pm on Monday as strong waves hit the ship, tossing him around his cabin.

"Strong waves threw me into the air and at that time, my only thought was that I wanted to see the sky and get out," Xie said.

The ship turned over on its starboard side, Xie said, but he was pushed by waves to the port side of the ship.

"I really had to get out," he recalled. A few minutes later he managed to escape the sinking ship. Xie grabbed a life preserver and he saw another survivor from Tianjin floating in the water.

"The water was very cold and I was just wearing shorts. I also could not see clearly what was around me because of the heavy rain. I could only grab onto the life preserver as tightly as I could," he said. "I think I am very lucky for being able to survive."

Xie and the Tianjin man saw a small boat and yelled for help, but to no avail. It was only after 10 minutes that marine police came to their rescue.

"We saw a flashlight and yelled for help. And we heard the marine police saying that we would be saved," he said.

But Xie's wife was missing and he was forced to give his son the news.

"I called my son, telling him that his mother had probably died," Xie said. "It's a huge tragedy."

Chen Shuhan, a 21-year-old crewman on the Eastern Star, was alone in an air pocket inside the capsized hull and in complete darkness when rescuers found him.

Chen, a gas fitter, was checking the ship's main engine when the weather deteriorated outside, the reported.

As the ship began taking in water, Chen donned a life jacket and found a spot where he could breath. After the ship capsized, everything went dark, a moment Chen described as terrifying.

Rescuers searched the hull three times in the low visibility, before they found Chen. They then spent 20 minutes trying to calm him down.

A doctor at the hospital where Chen had been admitted said his condition was stable and he was conscious, but he needed to remain under medical observation for a few days.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Close call with tragedy