China prepares to right capsized ship, relatives grieve

An aerial view shows rescue workers standing on the sunken cruise ship Eastern Star in Jianli, Hubei province, China on June 4, 2015. Rescue officials on Thursday began the operation to right the vessel. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
An aerial view shows rescue workers standing on the sunken cruise ship Eastern Star in Jianli, Hubei province, China on June 4, 2015. Rescue officials on Thursday began the operation to right the vessel. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

JIANLI, China (REUTERS) - Hundreds of relatives of passengers from a Chinese cruise ship that foundered on the Yangtze River gathered in a public square in Jianli on Thursday clutching candles and flowers, as rescue officials began the arduous task of righting the vessel.

Several family members, their eyes brimming with tears, knelt in the centre of the city square, about a-1.5 hour drive from the site of Monday's disaster that left 75 people dead and over 370 missing.

"We just want an early resolution to this tragedy," said a 57-year-old woman surnamed Li, as she sobbed. "We feel so devastated."

The transport ministry said the operation to start righting the ship, which overturned during a freak tornado, would start at 8pm on Thursday.

That will allow rescuers to "search for the missing persons in the shortest possible time and give maximum protection to the dignity of the deceased", state news agency Xinhua said, citing the transport ministry.

Beijing has pledged that there would be "no cover-up" of an investigation, and President Xi Jinping on Thursday convened a special meeting of the ruling Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of power in the country, to discuss the disaster.

Authorities are investigating the crew members who were rescued from the Eastern Star and were "gathering evidence", Xu Chengguang, the spokesman for the Ministry of Transport, said. "We will never shield mistakes and we'll absolutely not cover up (anything)," Xu told a news conference on Wednesday night, adding a preliminary investigation had begun.

The Politburo Standing Committee called on rescuers to "take all possible measures" to save the injured and urged a "serious investigation into the cause of the incident", Xinhua said.

They also stressed that "the work of appeasing the families is very important" and called on local authorities to"understand the families' grief, carry out appeasement efforts and earnestly safeguard social stability".

Only 14 survivors, including the captain and chief engineer, have been found since the ship carrying 456 people capsized.

Police have detained the captain and chief engineer for questioning. An initial investigation found the ship was not overloaded and had enough life vests on board.

The announcement of the investigation came hours before dozens of relatives broke through a police cordon in bid to reach the disaster site.

Frustrated by the scarcity of information from local authorities, about 50 family members hired a bus to take them from Nanjing to Jianli county in Hubei, an eight-hour journey.

The ship had been on an 11-day voyage upstream from Nanjing, near Shanghai, to Chongqing.

Taxi drivers in Jianli were instructed on Thursday not to take family members to the local crematorium where the dead were transported.

A taxi driver showed a Reuters reporter a message on his mobile phone which instructed drivers to say they were unable to take them there because of "traffic control measures".

An official from the Jianli vehicle management office, surnamed Liao, told Reuters by telephone, however, that there was a mistake with the text message and that it was meant to say the "rescue site".

Hu Kaihong, a government spokesman, said at a news briefing that there were now more than 1,200 family members in Jianli.

Relatives have asked the government to release the names of survivors and the dead, and questioned why most of those rescued were crew members. Some have also demanded to know why the boat did not dock in the storm, and why the rescued captain and crew members had time to put on life vests but did not sound any alarm.