JIANLI, China: Chinese military officials and soldiers Saturday described the grim task of removing hundreds of bodies from the salvaged wreckage of the capsized Eastern Star cruise ship, as busloads of families gathered on the banks of the Yangtze River to mourn the dead.
Authorities who had worked through the night said the search of the vessel had been completed. The confirmed death toll stood at 406. Fourteen people survived Monday night’s accident, and 36 people remain unaccounted for.
As soldiers and other personnel worked through the night wearing white hazmat suits and life jackets, searching with flashlights, they said they encountered hallways jammed with furniture and other debris. At times, the stench inside the ship was overpowering and many bodies were swollen, stiff or decomposed. Locked cabin doors and rooms filled with mud and silt also hampered the recovery work, and firefighters were called in at times to clear passageways.
More than 700 soldiers took part in the effort to remove the dead. Because the Eastern Star overturned in a remote area, the bodies had to be carried more than 2 miles to the closest road, and then carried in vehicles to the mortuary in Jianli, a small agricultural town.
“When we entered the cabins, we all felt overcome by emotion,” Zeng Xianmei, chief nurse at the paramilitary hospital in the nearby metropolis of Wuhan, said at a news conference.
Liu Xiaowu, chief of staff of a brigade from Guangzhou, said he was particularly determined to recover the remains of the youngest passenger, a 3-year-old girl on a trip with her grandparents. Her body was found in a first-class cabin on the upper deck.
“When our soldiers finally discovered her body, they all cried,” he said. “We all have children.”
Liu and other officials said work would now begin to collect victims’ personal effects from the Eastern Star.
Meanwhile, the owner of the company that owns the vessel apologized for China’s deadliest maritime disaster in decades. Jiang Zhao, the owner of Chongqing Eastern Shipping, appeared late Friday night on state-run television and bowed in contrition, pledging to cooperate “fully” with investigators.
The exact cause of the capsizing remains unclear. Meteorological officials have said a freak tornado occurred in the area Monday night, and the captain of the ship—who survived and remains in police custody—has said he was attempting to reorient the Eastern Star so that it was sailing with the wind instead of against it.