4 Singaporeans missing in tugboat sinking in China's Yangtze River confirmed dead

Relatives of missing persons react next to police officers on the river bank during search and rescue operations on an overturned tugboat in the Yangtze River, Jingjiang city, Jiangsu province, China on Jan 17, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA
Relatives of missing persons react next to police officers on the river bank during search and rescue operations on an overturned tugboat in the Yangtze River, Jingjiang city, Jiangsu province, China on Jan 17, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA
Members of a rescue team bring a survivor onboard after a tugboat sank in Jingjiang, east China's Jiangsu province on Jan 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Members of a rescue team bring a survivor onboard after a tugboat sank in Jingjiang, east China's Jiangsu province on Jan 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Members of a rescue team (orange) look at a section of the hull (front) of a tugboat which sank on a trial voyage in Jingjiang, east China's Jiangsu province on Jan 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Members of a rescue team (orange) look at a section of the hull (front) of a tugboat which sank on a trial voyage in Jingjiang, east China's Jiangsu province on Jan 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Members of a rescue team (left) look at a section of the hull of a tugboat which sank on a trial voyage in Jingjiang, east China's Jiangsu province on Jan 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Members of a rescue team (left) look at a section of the hull of a tugboat which sank on a trial voyage in Jingjiang, east China's Jiangsu province on Jan 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Search and rescue teams working on the tugboat which has been lifted from the waters. It sank in the Yangtze River last Thursday. (Above, right) Rescue workers yesterday transporting on a barge the covered bodies of the victims. Twenty-two people die
Search and rescue teams working on the tugboat which has been lifted from the waters. It sank in the Yangtze River last Thursday. (Above, right) Rescue workers yesterday transporting on a barge the covered bodies of the victims. Twenty-two people died and three survived.PHOTOS: EPA, REUTERS
Search and rescue teams working on the tugboat which has been lifted from the waters. It sank in the Yangtze River last Thursday. (Above, right) Rescue workers yesterday transporting on a barge the covered bodies of the victims. Twenty-two people die
Search and rescue teams working on the tugboat which has been lifted from the waters. It sank in the Yangtze River last Thursday. (Above, right) Rescue workers yesterday transporting on a barge the covered bodies of the victims. Twenty-two people died and three survived.PHOTOS: EPA, REUTERS

Final death toll in Yangtze tragedy is 22; focus now is on finding out the cause

Hope gave way to grief as four Singaporeans aboard a tugboat that sank in China's Yangtze River were confirmed among the 22 found dead yesterday.

With all on board the vessel accounted for, the focus is also shifting to what caused the tragedy.

The four Singaporeans - Mr Quah Shihong, Mr Baginda Ali Zainul Abidin, Mr Chung Wai Kian Bernard and Mr Lim You Tsern - were part of a 25-member crew on board the Singapore-registered vessel which sank last Thursday afternoon in a fast-flowing stretch of the Yangtze, between the cities of Jingjiang and Zhangjiagang in Jiangsu province.

Of the 25 crew members, only three - all Chinese nationals - were pulled out alive.

But the fate of the rest remained unclear until yesterday, when the Jiangsu maritime agency made known the final death toll after the vessel was lifted from the waters by a crane, 40 hours after it sank.

The body of the last missing person was recovered from the cockpit of the JMS Delta, also known as WanShenzhou 67 in Chinese.

Yesterday, grieving relatives of the Chinese victims gathered on the riverbank, near the place where the tugboat had been recovered. Many wailed inconsolably while others knelt as they burned incense to pay their last respects to the dead.

Some Singaporean next of kin arrived in Jingjiang last Friday to attend to the grim task of identifying the bodies. None agreed to be interviewed.

Mr Ong Siew Gay, the consul-general in Shanghai, told Singapore media yesterday that assistance will be provided to the family members to repatriate the bodies or to perform the last rites in Jingjiang.

With the search over, questions are being asked about what caused the boat to go down, as well as about the pace of the rescue, which involved at least 23 maritime and coast guard vessels.

One man who identified himself only as the younger brother of 60-year-old Chinese victim Chen Yong told The Sunday Times: "We're thankful for the rescuers' efforts, but we do wonder whether my brother's life could have been saved if the rescue operation were faster."

He added: "Also, media reports said the sinking was caused by mishandling during a manoeuvre. We want more details on what that means."

Chinese media has raised questions about the condition of the new vessel, which was undergoing testing when it sank. The Jiangsu authorities told the official Xinhua news agency that the boat sank as a result of mishandling during a trial of its turning abilities.

Several Jingjiang locals told The Sunday Times they were puzzled as to why the rescue took more than 40 hours when conditions, such as the strength of the river currents, were normal.

Asked if Singapore families had also posed similar questions over the cause of the accident, Mr Ong said: "I believe the Chinese authorities will conduct full investigations and the Singapore companies involved will cooperate with them."

There were eight foreigners on board the 30m boat when it sank. All eight died.

The other foreigners were Malaysian Cheong Kin Chin, Japanese Kanasaki Masashi, Indian Mani Harikrishnan and Indonesian Rifadi Aif, Chinese media reported.

Two of the Singaporean victims and the Indonesian victim were employees of Jurong Marine Services, the tug-towing subsidiary of Singapore's Sembcorp Marine. It had planned to charter the 30m 368-ton vessel built by Anhui Bengbu Shenzhou Machinery last October.

The Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement yesterday: "We offer our deepest condolences to the bereaved families who have lost their loved ones in this tragic incident."

kianbeng@sph.com.sg