Toll in China ship tragedy rises past 400 as workers remember dead

AFP , Sunday 7 Jun 2015

China ship
Rescuers listen for reactions from inside a sunken ship as they search for survivors at the Jianli section of the Yangtze River, Hubei province, China, June 2, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

Salvage and rescue personnel bowed their heads on Sunday morning as ship horns blared in tribute to the victims of China's worst shipping disaster in nearly seven decades after the death toll reached 431.

The solemn ceremony was held in remembrance of those who died and were still missing after the "Eastern Star" cruise ship carrying 456 people capsized late Monday on the Yangtze River in a storm.

Searchers in white hooded surgical suits could be seen on board the Eastern Star, while others in work gear, orange safety vests and military-style fatigues formed columns on the decks of massive crane vessels that raised the ill-fated ship out of the water on Friday.

The event, attended by Yang Chuantang, China's transport minister, proceeded under grey and cloudy skies for several minutes as cameras panned over the area, with crews on smaller boats stopped nearby also participating.

Officials on Sunday announced that the death toll had risen to 431, with another 11 people still missing.

Only 14 survivors have been confirmed out of all those aboard, who were mostly tourists aged over 60, when the ship capsized at night on the river in the county of Jianli in China's central Hubei province.

Sunday marked a key milestone as, in accordance with traditional custom, relatives of the deceased should mourn their loved ones on the seventh day by Chinese reckoning following their death. The accident occurred on June 1 and Sunday is June 7.

The death toll on Saturday had jumped by over 200 after rescuers used massive cranes to hoist the vessel out of the water on Friday and began recovering bodies trapped inside.

The tally makes the disaster China's worst in shipping since the Communist Party came to power in 1949. The last time a death toll was higher came in 1948, when up to 4,000 on board the SS Kiangya were killed when it sank near Shanghai.

Officials on Saturday extended their search for victims that may have been swept far beyond the accident site. The search scope was extended to 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) of the Yangtze, Asia's longest river, in the hope of finding those still unaccounted for, Xinhua reported.

A government spokesman said on Thursday that no further survivors were expected to be found.

Reports have said the 76.5-metre-long (250 feet) and 2,200-tonne ship overturned in under a minute, and weather officials said a freak tornado hit the area at the time.

The vessel was cited for safety infractions two years ago, and CCTV said investigators will probe the ship's structure for flaws.

Information about the sinking and media access to the site have been tightly controlled, and online criticism of the search operation quickly deleted.

China's stability-obsessed Communist rulers often seek to contain anger over the official handling of disasters, fearing that it could spiral into dissent.

Nevertheless news of the disaster remained the top trending topic on Chinese social media, and attention Sunday was focused on mourning.

"May the dead be at peace in heaven and the living be strong," posted a user of Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter.

A petition posted by family members on social media service WeChat called for the death penalty for the ship's captain -- one of the few survivors of the disaster -- who is in police custody.


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