Sunken ship: Natural disaster or man-made misfortune?

Rescuers try to carry a victim body at the site of the overturned ship in the Jianli section of the Yangtze River, central China's Hubei Province, June 3, 2015. Photo: Xinhua

Over 400 people are still missing a day after a cruiser capsized in the Hubei section of the Yangtze River on the night of June 1, as observers raised doubts over the cause of the sinking.

The authorities said the accident was caused by tornado. “The portside was hit by the gust and the ship overturned within a minute,” the Hubei government said in a statement Tuesday.

Experts with the China Meteorological Administration also confirmed that the force of the gust measured at least 110 kilometers per hour and the tornado lasted for about 20 minutes at the site of sinking.

The ship, named Dongfangzhixing or Eastern Star, belonged to Chongqing Eastern Shipping Company. The cruiser measured 76 meters long and 11 meters wide. It carried 456 passengers on a sightseeing trip from Nanjing to Chongqing, with most of them elderly people aged between 50 and 80.

At least 14 people have been rescued from the capsized ship as of Wednesday morning. Eight were confirmed dead.

“The accident was caused by a tornado, the worst tornado in a century,” a staff member of the shipping company told the China Press on June 2.

Duan Siming, a local resident who operates a 500-ton cargo ship near the wreck site wondered why the captain of the Eastern Star did not dock in view of the storm.

“It was stormy that night. The winds started at 5 pm and grew stronger in the night. I don’t know what the captain was thinking. He should have docked in such bad weather,” said Duan who has been running cargo business on the river for 10 years.

He told the China Press that the section of the river where the ship sank has steady currents in normal times. The captain might have been negligent, thinking a large ferry would brave the storm, Duan said.

Captain Zhang Shunwen and chief engineer Yang Zhongquan, who managed to escape from the ship and swim to the shore, were detained by local police.

The Eastern Star reportedly veered off its route and tried to take a U-turn.

Another passenger ship from Jiangxi set off at the same time as the Eastern Star. Its captain decided to dock at Chibi in view of the forecast of severe convective weather. But the Eastern Star moved on in a bid to reach the next tourist site on Tuesday morning, the Chutian Metropolis Daily reported.

An insider from the shipping industry who requested anonymity said that the ship’s restructured hull could also have played a part in the tragedy besides the storm.

The passenger cabin had been revamped by a third party to accommodate a larger number of tourists, said the source. The ship’s draught increased to 2.2 meters from 2 meters.

The Eastern Star had passed a quality inspection from Chongqing authorities in March.

(The article is translated by Wu Jie.)

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