JIANLI, China: Authorities admit there is no hope for more survivors from a capsized Chinese cruise ship, as cranes on Friday slowly raised the sunken vessel with exhausted relatives preparing themselves for further agony.
Just 14 of the 456 people on board the Eastern Star were rescued after it sank on the Yangtze River late Monday, and “comprehensive research and analysis of the facts” showed the chances of finding anyone still alive were “increasingly slim”, a transport ministry spokesman said.
“Based on the general judgment that there is no possibility of survival” authorities decided to right the ship, Xu Chengguang told a press conference late Thursday.
So far, 97 people are confirmed dead, Xu said Friday, but hundreds were still missing, many believed trapped in the ship’s hull.
The current tally of survivors means that the final toll of dead and missing is likely to reach 442, making the tragedy China’s worst shipping disaster in nearly 70 years, state media have reported.
Rescuers operating massive cranes battled from Thursday night to right the Eastern Star at the site of the disaster in Hubei province’s Jianli County.
Daybreak demonstrated some success, with state media images showing the ship upright but with much of it still below water.
Xu also said that with the aim to “search for and find the missing people in the shortest possible time” and “protect the dignity of the deceased to the greatest extent”, authorities wanted to lift the ship “as soon as possible”, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Workers on Thursday welded giant hooks onto the hull, an AFP reporter witnessed, as they prepared to lift the 76.5 meter long (250 feet) vessel with a reported weight of 2,200 tons in a delicate and risky operation that could have destabilized the wreck and sent it further down the river.
Xu said Friday that the next step is to raise the ship completely above the surface and start searching through it.
Families of those on board gathered Thursday night in a public square in Jianli, clutching candles and flowers to pray for those lost in the disaster.
Hundreds of people, many of them relatives of the missing who have come from across China, tearfully laid out candles in the shape of crosses, hearts and 6.1—the date the ferry capsized.
“Stay strong, stay strong,” one woman said to another, as the pair sobbed while clutching flowers.
Anger of relatives
Days of poor weather that had hampered rescue operations cleared on Friday, while security was increased outside Jianli’s funeral parlor, though families did not appear to be gathering there.
Most of the passengers on the ship were aged over 60 and on a tourist trip when the ship sank, reportedly in less than a minute.
Weather officials said a small but fast-moving tornado hit the area at the time, but few other details have been released. The captain and other crewmembers have been questioned.
The state-run China Daily newspaper on Friday identified the captain as 52-year-old Zhang Shunwen, who it said has 35 years of experience and was rescued alive two hours after the accident by a patrol ship.
The China Daily quoted a senior executive at Chongqing Eastern Shipping, the boat’s operator, suggesting Zhang was not at fault.
“It happened suddenly,” Feng Haiming told The Paper, an online outlet, according to China Daily, adding that Zhang and his chief engineer may have been thrown from the ship.
Information about the sinking and media access to the site have been tightly controlled, and any public criticism of the search operation quickly doused.
The vessel was cited for safety infractions two years ago, according to a notice by the Nanjing Maritime Bureau, but no further details have been given about the state of the ship.
More than 1,200 relatives have arrived in Jianli, according to state media. Many, frustrated by the lack of news, have converged on the disaster site in the hope of finding out more about their loved ones, where police are closely monitoring them.
Jianli residents mobilized on Friday with a huge volunteer operation, with many local people taking the day off to offer support and transport to rescue workers, the media and relatives.
Thousands of cars had yellow ribbons tied to their wing mirrors, to show that they were available for volunteer work.
“This is what we should do,” said Tan Yun, a 39-year-old ethnic dance teacher, who was delivering cakes to a welcome center for relatives. “Heartbreak has come to my hometown.”