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UPDATED: June 8, 2015 NO. 24 JUNE 11, 2015
Tragedy on the Yangtze
Search and rescue workers have gone all out to salvage what can be salvaged from the recent ferry accident
By Wang Hairong

A search and rescue team salvages the capsized cruise ship in the Yangtze River in Jianli County, Hubei Province, on June 5 (CFP)

On June 3, at the middle reaches of the Yangtze River near Jianli County of central China's Hubei Province, rescue workers were racing against time to search for survivors in the capsized ship Eastern Star.

Above a stripe of the hull jutting out of water stood rescue workers cutting holes into the ship and pumping in oxygen, and around the wreckage, several barges kept busy. Divers were combing the ship and downstream water to locate survivors.

As of June 5, 14 had been found alive, while others were either dead or missing.

The cruise, carrying 458 people including 406 passengers, five tour guides, and a crew of 46, overturned at 9:28 p.m. on June 1 while it was sailing upstream along the Yangtze River from Nanjing, east China's Jiangsu Province, to Chongqing Municipality. Most of the passengers on the ship were seniors on a sightseeing tour.

The cruise sank "within one or two minutes" after encountering a tornado, the ship's captain and chief engineer explained after surviving the disaster by swimming ashore, according to a report by Xinhua.

The meteorological administration confirmed that heavy rain and strong wind had battered the region at the time of the accident, and the violent storm continued into the next day, hampering rescue efforts.

Rescue efforts

"As long as there is a glimmer of hope, we will not give up," said Yang Chuantang, China's Minister of Transport, on June 2 at a press conference.

Around 1 a.m. on June 2, the Yangtze River Search and Rescue Coordination Center received a report of the accident, according to Zgjtb.com, a news portal under the ministry. The ministry quickly activated their emergency response and set up a lead group headed by the minister.

President Xi Jinping ordered all-out rescue efforts and dispatched a State Council work team to the site to guide the search and rescue work. Premier Li Keqiang arrived at the scene on the morning of June 2. He asked rescuers to seize every second to rescue survivors.

On June 2, the Chinese Navy dispatched more than 230 soldiers, including 140 divers, to carry out the search and rescue mission.

Zhu Hongmei, a 65-year-old woman, was the 13th survivor rescued. When rescuers tapped the wrecked ship, they heard someone tapping back from within the ship. Divers went into the ship and found her. Around noon on June 2, she swam out of the wrecked ship with a breathing apparatus given to her by Guan Dong, a diver from the Naval University of Engineering.

When the ship turned up-side-down, Zhu happened to be located at a higher position in the ship. She climbed onto a cabinet, and knocked at the ship with an iron stick, reported Nanjing-based Yangtze Evening News. By the time she was rescued, she had been soaked in water for about 17 hours. Her husband was also onboard the ship, but was still missing.

At around 3 p.m. on the same day, a 21-year-old man named Chen Shuhan swam out of a small compartment—again, with a diving device provided by a rescuer. Chen, an oiler on the ship, was trapped inside a 10-square-meter cabin, according to China Central Television (CCTV).

"I swam back and forth three times, and by the third time I felt somebody was up there above me. As soon as I got out of the water, I noticed the trapped victim. It was pitch black inside, with just him inside the cabin and nobody else," said Guan, who spotted Chen while diving inside the ship.

On June 3, rescue efforts were escalated, with the arrival of more rescuers and vessels. By that day, 109 ships and 1,982 people had participated in the search and rescue mission, according to Zgjtb.com.

Premier Li Keqiang visits four survivors of the ferry accident in a hospital in Jianli County, Hubei Province, on June 2 (CNSPHOTO)

Learning a lesson

After the accident, many people are questioning how such a disaster can be prevented.

Jianli Meteorological Administration confirmed that at 5 p.m. on June 1, it issued a yellow alert for the rainstorm, warning that in the coming six hours, there would be thunder, strong wind and more than 50 mm of precipitation. The warning was sent to the country's navigation administration so that they would notice ships passing through the area.

Jiangxi TV2's WeChat public account reported that a ship that departed from Nanjing at the same time as Eastern Star received the warning. At dusk, the captain decided to dock the cruise near Chibi, Hubei Province.

Nonetheless, Eastern Star pressed on despite the inclement weather in order to meet the tight schedule. It was reported that some travel agencies designed busy schedule for tourists to slash cost.

Although it is very difficult to forecast a cyclone, this tragedy is not unavoidable, Yao Zhenqiu, associate professor with the Research Institute of Marine Equipment of Jiangsu University of Science and Technology, told Shanghai-based Thepaper.cn.

He said that vessels sailing on inland water usually cannot resist winds reaching grade 12 on the Beaufort scale. So, when the local meteorological administration issued yellow alert for a rainstorm, the ship should have docked along the bank.

The safety of cruisers is also under scrutiny. Though Eastern Star passed its regular safety inspection, after the accident the Yangtze River navigation administration ordered Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp., the owner of Eastern Star, to conduct a safety inspection on its vessels and step up efforts in collecting information about extreme weather conditions, notifying its vessels and urging them to take safety precautions.

Global response

The accident has been widely covered in international media. Many countries and international organizations have sent condolences and expressed their hope for more survivors, Xinhua reported.

On June 2, upon learning the accident, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that he was "deeply saddened."

"The Secretary General extends his condolences to the families of the victims and also sends his deep sympathies to the government and people of China. He fervently hopes more survivors will be found," Ban's spokesperson said in a statement.

On June 2, France sent its condolences to China over the sinking of the cruise boat. "We were extremely shocked to learn of the sinking. France extends its condolences to the victims' families. Our thoughts are also with the families of the hundreds of people who are missing," said Romain Nadal, France's foreign ministry spokesperson.

On the same day, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted messages on his Weibo account, praying for the safety for those on board. The EU and the United States also conveyed their condolences.

Copyedited by Kieran Pringle

Comments to wanghairong@bjreview.com

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