Capsized Chinese cruise ship death toll revised to 331

The death toll in China Eastern Star capsizing rose to 331 on Saturday as disaster teams searched the boat for bodies a day after pulling it upright and raising it from grey currents of the Yangtze River.

Focus shifts from finding survivors to retrieving bodies after river cruise ship capsized Monday

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      The death toll in the Eastern Star capsizing rose to 331 on Saturday as disaster teams searched the now-upright ship for more bodies, making it China's deadliest boat disaster in nearly seven decades.

      Authorities have attributed the overturning of the cruise boat in the Yangtze River late Monday to sudden, severe winds, but also have placed the surviving captain and his first engineer under police custody.

      Passengers' relatives have raised questions about whether the ship should have continued its cruise after the storm started in a section of Hubei province and despite a weather warning earlier in the evening.

      State media outlets said hundreds more bodies were found overnight and Saturday, bringing the death toll to 331.

      The state broadcaster CCTV and the official Xinhua News Agency earlier Saturday morning put the death toll at 345, but they both later revised the number downward to 331. More than 100 remain unaccounted for.

      Medical workers make preparations near the capsized Eastern Star ship, as it is lifted by cranes on the Yangtze River Friday. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

      The boat had more than 450 people aboard, many of them elderly tourists, for a cruise from Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing.

      Fourteen people survived, including three pulled out by divers from air pockets in the overturned hull on Tuesday.

      Disaster teams put chains around the hull and used cranes to roll the banged-up, white and blue boat upright and then gradually lift it out of the grey currents of the Yangtze on Friday.

      In a sign of potential unrest among the hundreds of relatives who have descended on the small Hubei province county of Jianli, one distraught family member burst into a gathering of journalists to complain about their treatment and demand an investigation into possible human error.

      "All the emphasis is on a natural disaster … but we think that this is unjust," said Xia Yunchen, a 70-year-old university lecturer. "Apart from natural disaster were there other causes? Is this not rational to ask?"

      Xia, whose older brother Xia Qinchen, from the eastern coastal city of Qingdao, was a passenger, demanded that relatives be allowed to view their loved ones' bodies before they are cremated. In past disasters, authorities have instead cremated bodies and delivered ashes to the victims' families, in keeping with the tight management of the aftermath of disasters and fears of spiraling unrest.

      "Why do you view the common people as your enemies?" Xia cried out. "There's no human feeling, can't we change this habit?"

      Rescuers on a boat watch a capsized ship being righted by cranes on the Yangtze River in Jianli county of southern China's Hubei province, as seen from across the river from Huarong county of southern China's Hunan province, on Friday. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)
      Cranes righted the boat Friday morning after some 50 divers attached chains to it overnight, Transportation Ministry spokesman Xu Chengguang said, adding that disaster teams would now focus on finding and identifying bodies. The boat was gradually lifted out of the river as water drained from its cabins.

      Divers found more bodies through Friday and early Saturday, bringing the death toll to 331, CCTV reported.

      Police and paramilitary troops stationed on the riverbank have blocked access to the site, and authorities have tightly controlled media coverage.

      Records show the capsized ship was cited for safety violations during an inspection in 2013, according to a Nanjing's Maritime Safety report, which didn't specify the violations.

      The shallow-draft boat was not designed to withstand winds as heavy as an ocean-going vessel can. Weather authorities have said the storm the boat encountered head winds of up to 130 kilometres per hour.

      China's deadliest maritime disaster in recent decades was the Dashun ferry, which caught fire and capsized off Shandong province in November 1999, killing about 280.

      The country's worst was the sinking of the SS Kiangya off Shanghai in 1948, which is believed to have killed anywhere from 2,750 to nearly 4,000 people.

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