JIANLI, China – Zhang Jianwei's grumpy refusal to join his wife's birthday plans saved two lives in this week's Chinese cruise boat tragedy.
His wife Zheng Zhenwen booked a Yantze River cruise for the two of them and their grandchild to celebrate her own 60th birthday, but Zhang didn't feel up to it. He told her to cancel.
"I told her there was no way I was going. I said she was welcome to go by herself," Zhang said. Their 7-year-old granddaughter had been booked to travel with them, but it was decided that she would be too much work for Zheng alone, so she stayed home as well.
Zheng went ahead, along with 22 neighbors and friends, and was among the 456 on board — many of them retirees — when the ship went down in ferocious weather Monday night on the Yangtze, China's mightiest river that has taken untold lives over the centuries in floods and boating disasters.
"So you see," Zhang said Friday, seated at a restaurant in Jianli, the closest city to the site of the sinking, "I saved two lives. But I lost a wife, my son lost a mother and his daughter lost a grandmother."
Four days after the tragedy, Zhang seems prepared to accept that his wife of more than 30 years won't be coming back. Workers on Friday returned the ship to an upright position and began pumping it dry in order to retrieve bodies and make it float again. Only 14 people survived, including the captain and chief engineer.
"I've come to take care of all the final arrangements. I'll stay as long as necessary," said the 64-year-old retired food industry worker, who was accompanied by his son, sister-in-law and other Shanghainese whose relatives were also on the cruise.
Also accompanying Zhang was a group of mid-level Communist Party cadres, assigned to manage the family members' transport and accommodation in an unfamiliar city while providing emotional support.
The minders go with the family members wherever they go, monitoring their contacts with other victims' relatives and the media. The practice is part of a standard government formula for dealing with disasters that includes isolating victims' relatives, sealing off the scene of the disaster and strictly controlling the media.
Since taking power in 1949, the party has felt the need to control the narrative in disaster coverage, sometimes hiding the scale of destruction when it was considered politically expedient to do so. An abiding fear is that grief will turn to criticism of the government, and that others with similar grievances or political agendas will glom on.
Zhang, however, has nothing but praise for his new friends, saying they've helped ease the burden of grief in addition to providing practical help.
"They've been very thoughtful and they've been a great comfort to us. Here in China we really are like a big family," he said.
As for the cause of the accident, he said he's willing to wait for the government to announce the results of the investigation, unlike other victim's relatives who say they worry the government will blame natural causes and disregard the possibility of human error.
Zhang said he last spoke to his wife around 9 p.m. Monday as they were preparing to call it a night.
"She asked me if it was raining in Shanghai. I said no, and then she said it was coming down like crazy on the boat," Zhang said.
Just 28 minutes later, the boat went down in an instant after the captain lost control in what meteorologists say was a freak tornado brought on by high winds and torrential rains. The accident was set to become China's worst maritime disaster in seven decades.
Zhang said he found out early the next day after turning on the news. "I called my son, then went into total shock," he said.
The two rushed to the travel agency that had arranged the tickets, along with hundreds of other Shanghainese who had loved ones on the cruise. Finding it closed, with an announcement on the door saying the manager had rushed to the accident site, they moved on to government offices looking for help and answers.
Zhang described his wife as a vivacious woman who made friends easily and loved to travel. As well as various Chinese holiday spots, she'd been to Thailand, a favorite destination for Chinese traveling overseas for the first time.
Left disabled after surgery for a cerebral hemorrhage four years ago, Zhang said Zheng looked after him every day, laying out his clothes and taking care of the housework. "She took really good care of me, never gave up on me."
On Friday morning, he took the 6:50 a.m. train to Yueyang, the closest station to Jianli, along with seven other people, all from his family or a neighboring one in the same building.
The night before departing, he left the apartment key with a neighbor, asking her to water the flowers.
"It was what my wife had asked me to do before the trip," Zhang said. "I promised her and I will make sure it's done."
Associated Press researcher Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report.