China escalates effort to recover missing from capsized ship

Premier Li Keqiang, the country’s No. 2 political leader, has traveled to the disaster site in the Hubei province county of Jianli

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Chinese authorities deployed scores more divers and a large crane as they escalated efforts Wednesday to recover more than 410 people believed to be trapped inside an overturned river cruise ship.

The capsizing late Monday of the multi-decked Eastern Star in the Yangtze River is on track to become the country’s deadliest maritime disaster in seven decades. Chinese authorities have launched a high-profile response while tightly controlling media coverage.

Premier Li Keqiang, the country’s No. 2 political leader, has traveled to the disaster site in the Hubei province county of Jianli where he urged “all-out,” 24-7 efforts.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said the bodies of 26 victims have been pulled from the boat, which floated with a sliver of its hull jutting from the grey river. Fourteen people survived, some of them by swimming ashore and three by being pulled out of the ship by rescuers on Tuesday.

But the vast majority of the 456 people on board remain missing. Many were elderly tourists taking in the scenic vistas of the Yangtze on a cruise from Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing.

Records from a maritime agency show the capsized ship was cited for safety violations two years ago. Authorities in Nanjing held the ship and five other Yangtze cruise vessels after it found them violating standards during a safety inspection campaign in 2013, according to a report on the city’s Maritime Safety website. It didn’t specify the Eastern Star’s violations.

The shallow-draft boat, which was not designed to withstand as heavy winds as an ocean-going vessel can, overturned in what Chinese weather authorities have called a cyclone with winds up to 80 mph (130 kph).

“The river ships tend to have a lower standard on wind-resistance and wave-resistance than ocean ships,” Zhong Shoudao, president of the Chongqing Boat Design Institute, said at a news conference along with weather and Transportation Ministry officials. “Under the special circumstance of cyclone, the pressure on the one side of the boat went beyond the standard it was designed for, resulting in the overturning of the boat.

“The boat had lifejackets and lifeboats, but due to the sudden capsizing, there was not enough time for people to put on lifejackets or for the signals to be sent out,” Zhong said.

The squad of 13 navy divers who searched the boat Tuesday - and pulled out three trapped survivors from air pockets after voices were heard through the hull - was expanded Wednesday to 202, including 45 from civilian rescue services. They were working in shifts virtually around-the-clock as part of a last-ditch attempt to find survivors, the last of which was found on Tuesday afternoon.

CCTV said rescuers were deciding whether to cut into the overturned hull - an option that would imply hopes still lingered for finding survivors trapped in air pockets - or to bring two salvage ships to the stern and bow to act as a vise keeping the craft in place while a crane pulls it upright.

Transport Ministry spokesman Xu Chengguang said divers would search the ship for as long as possible.

“Until all hope is lost and more accurate information becomes available, we will not give up on our final efforts, although I know that our colleagues at the scene are facing a great many difficulties,” Xu told reporters.

Access to the site was blocked by police and paramilitary troops stationed along the Yangtze embankment. Scores of trucks belonging to the People’s Armed Police were parked along the edge and at least two ambulances were seeing leaving the area with their lights on and sirens blaring.

Local Communist Party officials and the Foreign Ministry organized a boat trip for about four dozen journalists to a location about 100 to 200 meters (yards) from the overturned hull, where they were able to see some of the rescue work, including two men in orange life vests standing on the overturned hull.

The disaster has drawn considerable attention in Asia, and globally, and the tour was a way for normally reticent Chinese authorities to accommodate foreign media requests for access.

The rescue and salvage efforts are being run from a massive barge tethered a few kilometers (miles) upstream of the wreckage. Reached through a watery wasteland of flooded crops and trees torn in half by high winds, it was a bustle of activity, as rescuers, paramilitary troops and army and navy specialists arrived and left by smaller boat.

Huang Delong, a deckhand on a car ferry crossing the Yangtze nearby, said he was working Monday evening when the weather turned nasty ahead of the ship’s capsizing about 9:30 p.m.

“From about 9 p.m. it began raining extremely hard, then the cyclone hit and the wind was really terrifying,” Huang said while crossing the broad river in a steady drizzle Tuesday afternoon.

The survivors included the ship’s captain and chief engineer, both of whom have been taken into police custody. Some relatives have questioned whether everything was done to ensure the safety of the passengers and have demanded help from officials in Nanjing and Shanghai in unruly scenes that have drawn a heavy police response.

Wang Yi, 35, an insurance company employee in Shanghai whose father was on the Eastern Star, said that local authorities told her they would organize travel to the disaster site for up to two family members of each passenger, but that they had not yet said when that trip would take place.

State media originally said there were 458 people on board but revised that figure to 456 Wednesday. CCTV said most of the passengers were 50 to 80 years old.

The Eastern Star was 251 feet (76.5 meters) long and 36 feet (11 meters) wide, and could carry a maximum of 534 people, CCTV reported. It is owned by the Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp., which focuses on tourism routes in the popular Three Gorges river canyon region. The company could not be reached for comment.

China’s deadliest maritime disaster in recent decades was when the Dashun ferry caught fire and capsized off Shandong province in November 1999, killing about 280.

With 26 confirmed dead and more than 410 still missing, the Eastern Star disaster could become China’s deadliest 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.

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