Capsized Chinese ship righted as rescuers find 97 bodies so far; hundreds still missing

Top-deck cabins with smashed blue roofs from the Eastern Star river cruiser jutted out of gray water Friday after disaster teams righted the capsized vessel to ease the search for more than 340 people still missing. So far, 97 bodies have been found.

Crews worked on draining water from the ship, which was still mostly submerged in the Yangtze River, as the focus shifted from finding survivors to retrieving bodies trapped after Monday night's sudden capsizing during a storm while on a trip from Nanjing to Chongqing.

Chinese authorities have attributed the accident to sudden high winds just before 9:30 p.m., but also have placed the surviving captain and first engineer under police custody. Passengers' relatives have raised questions about whether the boat should have continued on after the storm started and despite a weather warning earlier in the evening.

In all 14 people survived the accident in Hubei province near Jianli county, including three pulled by divers from air pockets in the overturned boat on Tuesday after rescuers tapped the hull and heard responding yells from inside.

The boat was righted Friday morning with cranes after some 50 divers worked overnight to attach chains to it, Transportation Ministry spokesman Xu Chengguang said, adding that disaster teams would now focus on draining off water, and finding and identifying bodies. Divers also found more bodies overnight, bringing the death toll to 97, Xu said.

In a sign of potential unrest among the hundreds of relatives who have descended on the small community of Jianli, one distraught family member burst into a gathering of journalists to complain about the treatment and demand an investigation into possible human error.

"All the emphasis is on a natural disaster ... but we think that this is unjust," said Xia Yunchen, a 70-year-old university lecturer. "Apart from natural disaster were there other causes? Is this not rational to ask?"

Xia, whose older brother Xia Qinchen, from the eastern coastal city of Qingdao, was a passenger, demanded that relatives be allowed to view their loved ones' bodies before they are cremated. In past disasters, authorities have cremated bodies and delivered ashes to the victims' families without letting them see them, in keeping with the tight management of the aftermath of natural disasters and fears of spiraling unrest.

"Why do you view the common people as your enemies?" Xia cried out. "There's no human feeling, can't we change this habit?"

Many of the more than 450 people on board the multi-decked, 251-foot (77-meter) -long Eastern Star were reported to be retirees taking in the scenic vistas of the Yangtze. With 97 confirmed dead and more than 340 missing, the capsizing is likely to become the country's deadliest boat disaster in seven decades.

Access to the site has been blocked by police and paramilitary troops stationed along the Yangtze embankment, and Chinese authorities have tightly controlled media coverage.

Records show the capsized ship was cited for safety violations during an inspection in 2013, according to a report on Nanjing's Maritime Safety website, which didn't specify the violations.

The shallow-draft boat, which was not designed to withstand winds as heavy as an ocean-going vessel can, overturned in what Chinese weather authorities have called a cyclone with winds up to 130 kilometers (80 miles) per hour.

China's deadliest maritime disaster in recent decades was the Dashun ferry, which caught fire and capsized off Shandong province in November 1999, killing about 280.

The Eastern Star disaster could become the country's worst since the sinking of the SS Kiangya off Shanghai in 1948, which is believed to have killed anywhere from 2,750 to nearly 4,000 people.


Associated Press writers Ian Mader and Louise Watt and news assistant Yu Bing in Beijing, and video journalist Helene Franchineau in Jianli, China, contributed to this report.