Sunday 25 September 2016

Hundreds feared drowned as ship capsizes in Chinese river

Charlotte Middlehurst in Shanghai

Published 03/06/2015 | 02:30

A woman is helped after being pulled out by divers from a sunken ship in Jianli, Hubei province, China. Photo: Reuters
A woman is helped after being pulled out by divers from a sunken ship in Jianli, Hubei province, China. Photo: Reuters
Rescue workers are seen atop the sunken ship in the Jianli section of Yangtze River, Hubei province, China. Photo: Reuters
An aerial view shows rescue workers searching on the sunken ship at Jianli section of Yangtze River, Hubei province, China. Photo: Reuters
Rescue workers are seen atop a sunken ship in the Jianli section of Yangtze River, Hubei province, China. Photo: Reuters
Rescuers save a survivor from the overturned passenger ship in the Jianli section of the Yangtze River in central China's Hubei Province. Photo: AP

Over 400 people were last night still trapped and feared dead in China's worst boat accident in 70 years, after a four-floor ferry boat capsized in the Yangtze River.

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The Eastern Star passenger ship went down at 9.28pm on Monday after being hit by a freak tornado in the Damazhou waterway section of the river in Hubei province, in central China.

The ship's captain and chief engineer have been detained for questioning amid concerns that weather warnings may have been ignored, as it emerged that another vessel had sought shelter before reaching the fatal stretch.

The ship was carrying 458 tourists, mainly aged between 60 and 80, and crew who were on a cruise destined for the Three Gorges scenic area, organised by a Shanghai tourist group.

By nightfall, a dramatic rescue operation battling wind and rain had saved only 12 people from the water, two of whom were cut free from the sinking ship. Five bodies were recovered, while several hundred more people remained in the ship, some still alive.

Families across the country waited in vain for news of their loved ones as a state media site blogged the live events on its Weibo feed. In Shanghai, angry and weeping relatives arrived at the locked offices of the tour operator, Xiehe Travel, which had failed to notify families when the boat went down.

The relatives were then escorted to a local government office building where they were asked to wait inside a room. Scuffles broke out when a group of relatives, furious over the lack of information being given to them, demanded more answers from officials.

Wang Sheng from Shanghai, whose parents were aboard the boat when it sank said, "If I had known this would happen, I would have gone with them."

Another relative, Mr Cai broke down and said, "They should have arranged for us to go to Hubei earlier. I would go there alone but I am afraid I would disrupt the rescue workers. I hope we get there...". His mother and her friends were on the ship.

Rescuers fought the elements to free survivors from the sinking shop, which had drifted 3km down river in waters 50ft deep. Divers at the scene reported hearing people trapped inside the boat calling for help.

Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered immediate instructions that no efforts be spared in the rescue operation and Premier Li Keqiang travelled to the scene to aid efforts, which grew in strength throughout the day.

By nightfall, the Chinese Navy had sent 140 divers, and submersible craft had been deployed.

One of the survivors was a 65-year-old woman who was found 15 hours after the ship sank. One of her two sons had been waiting for news in the Shijiyuan Hotel in Nanjing, a city north of Shanghai. He wept when he saw a photo of her being pulled from the water. His father was also on the ship but has not been found.

There were also reports yesterday that the captain of a second ship that had embarked form the same port sought safety at Chibi, a city in South-eastern Hubei, anticipating bad weather conditions.

The Eastern Star continued its voyage in an attempt to reach its destination of Jinzhou on Tuesday afternoon.

The Yangtze, China's mightiest river, has been hit by tornadoes before but they are not common, according to the Chinese weather bureau.

China's worst previous incident of this kind happened in 1948, when the steamship Kiangya blew up on the Huangpu River, killing more than 1,000 people.

For many of those on the Eastern Star, it would have been the trip of a lifetime.

And the Three Gorges Dam - a place of pilgrimage in its own right and a powerful symbol of China's rising economic might, attracting about two million visitors a year - now has its part to play in the rescue.

The dam's engineers have been ordered to reduce the water volume flowing through the giant turbines.

The sinking of the Eastern Star will resonate widely.

A boat full of everyday Chinese tourists - from grandmothers and grandfathers down to the youngest listed passenger at just three years old - has been lost in the waters of the country's best-loved river.

(© Daily Telegraph London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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