Shock, grief and questions over China ship sinking

Shock, grief and questions over China ship sinking
A relative of missing passengers who were on a ship which sank in the powerful Yangtze river the night before reacts after hearing news of the sinking outside a travel agency in Shanghai on June 2, 2015. China mounted a rescue operation on June 2 after the ship which was reportedly carrying more than 450 people sank in the powerful Yangtze river after being hit by stormy weather.

Chinese citizens were in collective shock yesterday following the sinking of a passenger ship carrying 456 people, many of them elderly tourists, on the Yangtze River in stormy weather.

As grieving relatives sought news of their loved ones - only 15 have been rescued so far - questions were raised on whether the tragedy could have been averted in the light of a string of safety-related accidents in China over the past few years.

While netizens offered their prayers and sympathies on China's Twitter-like Weibo, hopeful that some passengers might be alive, many Chinese, including the media, wanted to know if the ship's captain had been issued a bad weather report by the authorities, and if the vessel had kept to the route given by the river's navigation administration.

Others wondered whether the design of the ship was faulty - since it reportedly capsized in less than a minute - and why the crew did not issue a distress call.

"How can such a large cruise liner capsize? That would mean other smaller boats in the area would have sunk too, but we're not seeing any other reports in the media. You can't blame every little thing on the weather," Weibo user "fenshijisu" wrote in a post.

Another user, "village gouzaozhe", added: "Hundreds of passengers are still missing but the government announced almost instantly that the reason for the accident was bad weather." Named Eastern Star, the ship was headed for south-western Chongqing city from Nanjing, capital of eastern Jiangsu province, when it capsized on Monday night in Jianli county, central Hubei province.

Its captain and a ship engineer claimed after they were rescued that the vessel had been caught in a "cyclone".

They have been detained by the police for questioning, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Xinhua added that initial investigations showed that the ship was not overloaded and that it had enough life vests on board.

But Changsha's Rednet.cn news portal said yesterday that many questions were awaiting "checks and verification".

A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident would serve as a consolation to the families of those who lost their lives, it added in an article.

It could also prevent a similar tragedy from happening.

"Why was there no distress call made? Was it a problem with the system or an error on the part of those operating it; could it have been caused by dereliction of duty?

Did the ship have an adequate emergency preparedness plan in place?" asked the Hunan-based paper, listing its concerns.

The latest incident, likely China's worst shipping disaster in almost 70 years, has again highlighted concerns about public safety in the world's most populous country.

A stampede that killed 36 people in Shanghai last New Year's Eve, for instance, led to a review of safety in public places.

A high-speed rail crash that killed 40 people near the eastern city of Wenzhou in 2011 was subsequently blamed on mismanagement and design flaws on the trains.

About the Yangtze River

The Yangtze, the world's third-longest river, is China's most crucial waterway.

Tourists often take pleasure cruises along the middle stretch. These cruises are focused on the area called the Three Gorges, where vertiginous canyon walls rise from the waters.

That section is also the site of the world's largest hydropower project, the Three Gorges Dam, located in Hubei province.

The section of the Yangtze in Hubei is also the starting point of the middle route of China's most ambitious water engineering project, the South-North Water Diversion.

A series of canals runs 1,290km from a reservoir in Danjiangkou to the area around Beijing, carrying water to northern China, which is in the midst of a chronic drought.

Many farmers were forced to abandon their villages during the construction of that project.

esthert@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 3, 2015.
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