FREAK STORM

A six-month investigation into the Yangtze boat tragedy that killed over 400 blames the weather

Obsession
China's Transition
Obsession
China's Transition

Six months after a cruise ship sank on China’s Yangtze River, killing 422 people, the results of a 60-person government investigation have been released. They blame the accident on freak weather.

The “Eastern Star” cruise ship, carrying hundreds of elderly tourists on a cheap package tour, overturned on the night of June 1 at the Jianli section of Yangtze River in Hubei province. Of the 454 people on board, 422 died.

Earlier reports in Chinese and foreign media found several man-made mistakes, including the captain’s reckless decision to sail into a storm, a retrofit that sealed outer cabin doors, and lax safety checks on boats on the Yangtze contributed to the deaths. After the accident, the Chinese government censored news and discussions about the causes, while highlighting rescue efforts by state-run outlets.

The “extraordinarily serious disaster” of the cruise ship crash was caused by “sudden and rarely seen severe convective weather” that brought strong winds and heavy rains resulting from a “squall line accompanied by a downburst,” according to the China State Council report (link in Chinese), published on the website of the State Administration of Work Safety.

Nonetheless, the report “suggested” 43 people, including shipping company executives, local government officials and maritime regulators should be given administrative punishment from demotions to being removed from their posts. Captain Zhang Shunwen, who was among the 12 survivors, should have his captain license revoked and his contract ended, and be probed for probable criminal charges, the report recommended. No one has been charged with any crime at this point.

The official Xinhua news agency also published a question-and-answer explanation from four experts who took part in the investigation. The article (link in Chinese), together with the investigation report, dismisses some earlier media reports:

  • The ship crash was caused by a “downburst” that can only be forecast by nearby radar, they said. A tornado, which had been thought the cause, hit a nearby port minutes before the accident, but didn’t affected the river.
  • The ship’s ability to resist wind decreased after three reconstruction projects, but it still conformed to official requirements.
  • The ship didn’t turn around after encountering extreme weather. Two other nearby vessels dropped anchor during the storm.
  • The ship was not in a rush to catch up to arrive at the next stop. It was actually slowing down before the accident.
  • The captain took measures to stabilize the vessel, but the wind force was more than double the maximum level the ship could stand. He didn’t abandon the ship before it capsized.
  • The captain and his chief mates never issued a distress message, nor a warning to the whole ship, and did not organize steps to abandon the ship and disperse passengers.

A string of deadly accidents in 2015 has sparked questions about China’s lax safety regulations, negligent supervision and government corruption. In August, warehouses full of dangerous chemicals exploded in Tianjin, a northern port city, killing over 170 people. Last week a landslide caused by trash hit an industrial park in Shenzhen, killing seven people, and burying 70 more who remain missing.

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