JIANLI: The death toll from a Chinese cruise ship that capsized on the Yangtze River climbed to 97 on Friday as authorities righted the battered vessel and turned their efforts to recovering bodies still on board amid simmering anger from distraught families.
The rescue mission has become an operation to recover hundreds of bodies from the ship, which was carrying 456 people when it overturned in a freak tornado on Monday night. Only 14 survivors have been found, including the captain.
Frustration over the lack of information has grown among families of the missing. Seventy-year-old Xia Yunchen burst into a room where senior officials had just finished a media conference, screaming and yelling and demanding answers.
“Is it necessary to treat the common people, one by one, as if you are facing some kind of formidable foe?” said Xia, whose sister and brother-in-law were on board the Eastern Star.
Xia, from the eastern city of Qingdao, told reporters she had wanted to get into the news conference to hear for herself what the government was saying, and that she wanted an honest investigation because family members doubted the weather was the real cause of the disaster.
“You view the common people as if we are all your enemy. We are tax payers. We support the government. You had better change your notion of this relationship. You are here to serve us. You need to be humane,” Xia said, before being escorted out.
Police then kept reporters back while they moved away relatives and passersby on the street outside.
“The next step is to concentrate on doing a good job of purging the water, raising the boat, overall salvage and looking for victims’ bodies,” Transport Ministry spokesman Xu Chengguang said just before Xia’s dramatic intervention.
Rescuers, many from the military, worked through the night to right the ship. Pictures on state television showed the ship, which had capsized completely, sitting upright in the water. Large dents and gashes scarred its blue roof.
Most of the four-deck ship remains under water, sitting on the river bed.
More than 200 divers have groped through murky water after cutting through the hull, searching every cabin on board, but have found no more survivors.
The weather improved markedly on Friday, after days of heavy rain, which should help rescuers. However it was forecast to worsen again at the weekend.
About 1,200 relatives have come to Jianli county in Hubei province where the disaster happened.
Showing the sensitivity of the disaster, the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, China’s apex of power, called on local authorities to take measures to help grieving families and to “earnestly safeguard social stability”.
Relatives have asked the government to release the names of survivors and the confirmed deaths, and questioned why most of those rescued were crew members.
Some have demanded to know why the boat did not dock in the storm, and how the rescued captain and crew members had time to put on life vests but did not sound any alarm.
Beijing has pledged there would be “no cover-up” in the investigation.
Police have detained the captain and chief engineer for questioning, although authorities have given no details. An initial investigation found the ship was not overloaded and had enough life vests on board.