China boat captain in custody as death toll rises

Cranes righted the ship before investigations began. Photograph:AFP/Getty Images
Cranes righted the ship before investigations began. Photograph:AFP/Getty Images
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DISASTER teams searched the Yangtze River yesterday for dozens of missing bodies from the Eastern Star as the death toll in the cruiser’s capsizing rose to nearly 400, making it China’s deadliest boat disaster in nearly seven decades.

Authorities have attributed the overturning of the ship on Monday to sudden, severe winds, but also have placed the captain and his first engineer in police custody. Passengers’ relatives have raised questions about whether the ship should have continued its cruise after the storm started in a section of Hubei province and despite a weather warning that went out earlier in the evening.

The death toll rose to 396 after hundreds more bodies from the Eastern Star were found on Friday night and yesterday morning, including that of a three-year-old girl in the top deck, officials said.

Hu Kaihong, the vice director-general of the press bureau of the State Council Information Office, told a news conference that 46 people were still missing, and that authorities had requested that river traffic and others along the river alert them if they noticed any bodies floating in the water.

Hu said authorities were increasing their efforts to search for the missing and had expanded the target area from the middle reaches of the Yangtze more than 600 miles downstream to Shanghai.

The boat had more than 450 people aboard, many of them elderly tourists, who were on a cruise from Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing.

Fourteen people survived, including three pulled out by divers from air pockets in the overturned hull on Tuesday.

Disaster teams put chains around the hull and used cranes to roll the banged-up, white and blue boat upright and then gradually lift it out of the grey currents of the Yangtze on Friday.

The Eastern Star disaster became 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.

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 people.

Meanwhile, a TV station, Jiangsu Satellite, cancelled the popular dating show If You 
Are The One and the rest of its entertainment shows on Saturday for three days because it was “in deep mourning,” it said.