With over 440 expected dead, the Yangtze river cruise sinking is China’s worst boating disaster

Rescue workers pay respects to victims of a cruise ship that sank in the Yangtze River in Hubei province.
Rescue workers pay respects to victims of a cruise ship that sank in the Yangtze River in Hubei province.
Image: Reuters/China Daily
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Chinese rescuers do not expect to find any more survivors from a capsized cruise boat on the Yangtze River. The death toll is expected to reach over 440 people, which makes the sinking the deadliest maritime incident during peacetime in China’s history.

On Friday, emergency responders righted the overturned Eastern Star yacht that had been floating in the river in Hubei province since Monday evening, after sinking during a storm. Rescuers had initially heard voices of those trapped inside from the overturned hull of the ship, but only 14 people out of 456 passengers on board have been rescued. So far, 97 bodies have been recovered.

Rescuers had been carefully cutting holes into the hull, afraid of causing the ship to lose buoyancy and sink further, Chinese officials said. They had delayed righting the ship in hopes of extricating more survivors. On Thursday, China’s transport ministry spokesman said that the “overall judgment is that there is no chance of people being alive.”

The last time China experienced as many casualties in a maritime incident was at the tail end of the civil war between the communists and nationalists. In January 1949, a steamboat of Chinese refugees fleeing the mainland for Taiwan sank, killing over 1500 people. In 1999, 280 people were killed when their ferry in the Bohai bay in northeastern China caught fire and capsized.

The accident is China’s worst maritime disaster not just for its death toll. Attempts at empathy from government officials have come off orchestrated and stilted, and propaganda authorities have ordered Chinese media to focus on the “positive part” of the story, while censoring online discussion and questions about the rescue effort.

The relatives of passengers on board, many of them elderly tourists, are growing angrier by the day at a lack of answers from the government. Some say they have been beaten by police for asking for information. Chinese officials have been slow to explain why the boat continued into a storm when other vessels heeded weather warnings and stopped. An official passenger list has not been released, nor have officials given the names of the rescued victims. So far, 1,200 people have converged on the rescue site, demanding answers.