Hopes fade even as families demand answers

Hopes fade even as families demand answers
An aerial view shows rescue workers standing on the sunken cruise ship Eastern Star in Jianli, Hubei province, China, June 4, 2015.

Emotions ran high while hopes ebbed low among anxious relatives as rescuers recovered more bodies but no survivors on Day 3 of a cruise ship sinking on the Yangtze river.

Only 14 of the 456 people on board the capsized Eastern Star have been found alive; at least 79 are confirmed dead. This was as rescuers yesterday lifted more of the 76.5m-long vessel above water with cranes and cut holes into its overturned hull so frogmen could enter the ship.

There were scenes of desperation as some frantic next-of-kin arrived outside the Rongcheng crematorium, located in the south-east of Jianli county, at least 40km from the site at the Yangtze river where the ship capsized and sank on Monday night.

In a tent set up outside the entrance, a woman surnamed Zhang demanded that officials let her see her mother’s body, as more than 100 bystanders, mostly locals, watched on from outside.

She was told by the officials that their responsibility was to ensure that all next-of-kin get a last look at the bodies before they were cremated.

Obviously dissatisfied with the answer, she yelled: “What responsibility? Have you fulfilled your responsibilities? No one has offered us any assistance since we got here.”

At a press briefing held later yesterday, Jianli county chief Huang Zhen said all the bodies would be moved to the crematorium for DNA testing and identification by family members.

In a rare move meant to show the top leadership’s concern over the disaster, state media reported on a meeting of the Communist Party’s apex Politburo Standing Committee chaired yesterday by President Xi Jinping, to discuss rescue and investigation efforts for the country’s worst shipping accident in 70 years.

Among other things, the top leaders instructed officials to improve on their communications by providing information in a timely, accurate, open and transparent manner.

Relatives have complained about the lack of timely information from the authorities about the status of their loved ones, and approval to visit the accident site. They were allowed to get close to the site only yesterday morning.

One major reason for the lack of information is a gag order imposed on Chinese media outlets since early morning on Tuesday, along with instructions to use only stories from state media outlets.

Several Chinese journalists who rushed to Jianli county in the central province of Hubei to cover the accident confirmed with The Straits Times that their newsroom received the gag order.

Foreign media were allowed to go near the site only yesterday. It had been open only to Chinese media, especially state-run outlets, from Monday night.

The accident has prompted local volunteers to come forward.

Some 100 car owners and taxi drivers in Jianli are reportedly offering their vehicles – marked by yellow ribbons tied to their side mirrors – to ferry anguished relatives around.

Also lending a hand is Mr Wang Jiancai, 40, who travelled here from nearby Xiantao town, and has been helping journalists and next-of-kin with directions.

He told The Straits Times that he often swam in the Yangtze river near his home, and had never heard of cyclones on Asia’s longest river. A key reason cited for the sinking of the Eastern Star was that it was hit by a cyclone.

The cruise ship had been following a popular cruise route from Nanjing city in the east to Chongqing city in the south-west. A transport ministry spokesman said late last night that the authorities have made the decision to hoist the ship into an upright position, based on the assessment that would likely be no more survivors.

Even so, several relatives told The Straits Times that they were prepared for the worst.

Changzhou native Hu Jinwei, 33 – whose stepfather Ju Shujing, 72, and mother Xu Yingshun, 58, were aboard the ship – said the most important thing was to “bring them home”.

“My parents went on the tour happily. They might be unable to come home alive, but I want to make sure they come home. I can’t let them become lost souls outside,” he said.

kianbeng@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 5, 2015.
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