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Death toll in China ship disaster rises to nearly 400

June 06, 2015 14:17 IST

A family member of a passenger aboard the capsized ship Eastern Star cries during a daily briefing by the government for family members in Jianli, Hubei province, China. Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

The death toll in the Chinese cruise ship that capsized in the mighty Yangtze river on Saturday jumped to nearly 400 as hundreds more bodies were found by disaster teams, making it China's deadliest boat disaster in 70 years.

Hundreds more bodies from the Eastern Star were found after disaster teams stabilised the cruiser in an upright position, according to officials in the rescue headquarters in Jianli, central China's HubeiProvince.

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.

Rescue workers stand on the river bank as the capsized cruise ship Eastern Star is pulled out of the Yangtze against sunset, in Jianli, Hubei province, China. Photograph: China Daily/Reuters

Only 14 survivors, including the captain and chief engineer who swam to the shore, have been found after the ship carrying over 450 Chinese holiday-makers mostly elderly sank within two minutes on Monday night.

The ship was on an 11-day trip along the Yangtze when it overturned in Jianli in central China's HubeiProvince. 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.

Rescue workers transport a body near the site where the cruise ship Eastern Star capsized during a media trip to the site of the sinking, organised by the Chinese government, in the Jianli section of Yangtze River, Hubei province, China. Photograph: Aly Song

Meanwhile, Jiang Zhao, legal representative of Chongqing Dongfang Shipping Company that owns the Eastern Star, late on Friday night apologised to all the victims and their families and promised to cooperate with any investigation.

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.

Local authorities have put the waters where the ship sank under traffic control, with resumption yet to be announced, said Xu Chengguang of the ministry of transport.

"We put the traffic control in place so as to better focus on salvage work," Xu said.

A girl lights a candle at a candlelight vigil to pay respect to the passengers of the sunken cruise ship Eastern Star on the Yangtze River, at a public square in Jianli, Hubei province, China. Photograph: Aly Song

More than 3,400 soldiers and 1,700 police together with 149 vessels and a helicopter have taken part in the rescue mission.

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.

Authorities have attributed the overturning of the ship to sudden, severe winds, but have also placed the captain and his first engineer under police custody. 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.

K J M Varma in Jianli, China
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