A crane vessel waits for rescue work near the site of capsized passenger ship Eastern Star on the section of Jianli of the Yangtze River, central China's Hubei Province, June 4, 2015. Photo: Xinhua
Rescuers started to cut holes at three points of the upside-down hull of the sunken Yangtze ship on June 3 in a desperate bid to search for survivors, with more than 370 still missing after the ship capsized on Monday night amid a severe storm.
The death toll from the disaster rose to 75 on June 4, with only 14 passengers found alive. More than 450 people were onboard the ship, most of them elderly aged 50 to 80. The tragedy could become China's deadliest shipping accident in almost seven decades.
"The ship sank in a very short time frame, so there could still be air inside the hull," Li Qixiu of the Naval University of Engineering told Xinhua. "That means there could still be survivors."
But rescuers had failed to find any survivors after crack-opening the hull as of Thursday afternoon. The upside-down ship will be turned over 72 hours after the disaster when no life could be detected inside the cabin, Wang Zhigang, director of Wuhan Branch of the China Classification Society, said at the rescue site.
Though authorities said the tragedy was caused by a tornado, the passengers’ family members and media raised doubts over the ship’s safety and administration.
The ship, named Eastern Star, belonged to Chongqing Eastern Shipping Company. The cruiser measured 76 meters long and 11 meters wide. The 2,200-ton vessel, built in 1994, was on a sightseeing trip from Nanjing to Chongqing.
“The accident was caused by a tornado, the worst tornado in a century,” a staff member of the shipping company told the Sino-US.com on June 2.
But a fisherman living near the water didn’t feel it that way. “Storms are common in the monsoon season, but it is not once in a century,” said Hou Jin, who was not allowed to enter the water after the disaster.
“It was bad weather for the fishermen. We all docked that night. I don't know why the passenger ship risk sailing on?” asked Hou. Police have detained the ship's captain and chief engineer, who were among the few survivors.
The Eastern Star was revamped after a trial run in 1994 in a bid to cater to a growing number of tourists and stay competitive in the market, Wang Jianhua, vice manager of the shipping company told the Sino-US.com Thursday.
The weight of the hull grew significantly after the refurbishment that saw changes in the cabin, drain and fire partition. The draught of the ship increased to 2.2 meters from 2. However, the restructuring was not completed by its manufacturer, but a different party, a rescuer at the site told the Sino-US.com.
Wang said all the revamp was made to meet the tourism demand. The fancier vessels generally offer amenities such as private balconies, fully equipped bathrooms, fitness facilities, Internet access and cable television.
Authorities in Nanjing, where the Eastern Star began its ill-fated voyage, held the ship and five other Yangtze cruise vessels for violating standards during a safety inspection campaign in 2013, according to a report on the city's Maritime Safety website, AP reported Thursday.
Authorities are bound to scrutinize the Eastern Star's safety record and that of its owner, Chongqing Eastern Shipping Company following the disaster.
The cruiser ships along the Yangtze River from Nanjing to Chongqing boast fancy names like Eastern Palace, President’s Flagship and Fairytale, carrying the expectations of the shipbuilders. The service began in the 1970s, which was pioneered by an American travel agency.
Lind Braid Travel Service was the first to open the passenger transport business on the Yangtze River. It rented Chairman Mao Zedong’s luxury vessel “Kunlun”. The vessel, which only offered exclusive service for top Party leaders and international guests, was dubbed as “Onboard Great Hall of People.”
The cruise trip soon became a window for foreigners to know China, but few average Chinese could afford the tickets. Nowadays, the cruiser price is still much lower for a Chinese than a foreigner.
The flow of tourists peaked before the construction of the world’s biggest hydropower project, the Three Gorges Dam, with a rush to see sites due to be inundated before the completion of the dam in 2012.
But it was not long before the number of passengers dropped with the construction of expressways and high-speed railways, which piled pressure on the cruise lines and intensified competition.
Cruise operators lowered prices to gain more tourists. Operators of the flat-bottomed, multi-deck ships charge their mostly older passengers 1,000 yuan ($160) for three- to five-day tours, including meals.
Chongqing Eastern Shipping reported net profit of only 1.3 million yuan (about $210,000) in 2014.