Chinese Ship’s Final Hours on the Yangtze
‘Whatever occurred happened very fast’—a glimpse of the Eastern Star’s last voyage
By Josh Chin in the Wall Street Journal
BEIJING—The last known video image of the Eastern Star before it turned over in the choppy waters of the Yangtze River on Monday shows it powering ahead as lightning cracks through the nighttime sky.
The government has kept a tight grip on information about what happened next and many questions remain about the tragic sequence of events that followed. However, satellite data, interviews with experts and a handful of survivor accounts in Chinese state media—including partial accounts from the captain and chief engineer released Friday—begin to paint a picture.
The Eastern Star’s final tour was to be a two-week journey through the scenic Three Gorges to the central China metropolis of Chongqing. The ship had been chartered by Shanghai Xiehe International Travel Agency, which specializes in river tours.
Chinese rescuers turn over the capsized cruise ship Eastern Star on the Yangtze River on Friday morning. (Photo: Chen Zhuo/Reuters)
Among 405 tourists on board as the ship set out from the eastern city of Nanjing on May 28 were 58-year-old farmer Wu Jianqiang, his wife, Li Xiuzhen, and six friends from their home near Tianjin, in the north.
Mr. Wu told Xinhua News Agency he had arranged for a first-class cabin on the highest of the ship’s four decks because his wife was a light sleeper who wanted distance from the noises down below.
Another cruise ship, the Changjiang Guanguang No. 6, left Nanjing around the same time and plied the same route, according to satellite data from the Ministry of Transportation. At around 5 a.m. on June 1, both ships pulled into port at Chibi and stayed for around 4 1/2 hours before continuing upriver.
Dinner on the Eastern Star that night—braised fish, string beans, tomato and egg and plenty of rice—was the best of the tour, Mr. Wu told Xinhua. “My wife ate very happily,” he said.
At around 7:10 p.m., China’s Meteorological Administration issued a “blue” rain alert for the Yangtze River area, indicating moderate downpours, according to the agency’s website. The agency declined to comment further.
Back in their cabin, Mr. Wu and Ms. Li watched the evening news and weather report, which predicted heavy rain in the area. Outside, they could hear the wind start to blow and by 8:30 the storm had arrived. Rain pelted their window so hard Mr. Wu worried it might break.
The Eastern Star at that point was winding its way north toward Jianli, a city of 1.55 million people nestled on a bend in the Yangtze. The Changjiang No. 6, roughly an hour ahead, had already rounded past Jianli. Time-stamped video from another boat, posted on Xinhua’s website, shows the Eastern Star steaming ahead at 8:52 as lightning illuminates the water.
With the storm gaining strength, the Jianli maritime authority at 9:05 broadcast warnings to vessels in the area.
“Usually all ships in the channel area open their receivers to listen for warnings, but we don’t know if the Eastern Star was on the channel at that time,” said an official with the Yangtze Maritime Security Information Center, a radio station under the Ministry of Transportation. Captains are free to judge for themselves whether such warnings merit dropping anchor, he said, adding, “Bad weather happens here every day.”
By 9:15, the Changjiang No. 6 had stopped, satellite data show, but the Eastern Star continued to move upstream at a regular cruising speed. Some other boats in the area also stopped, said the radio official, who added that captains often make the decision whether to proceed in bad weather based on their experience.
Speaking to state-media TV crews from his hospital bed in Jianli, Zhang Hui, a 43-year-old Shanghai Xiehe tour guide, said rain was seeping through the closed windows. Eastern Star service staff walked through the ship telling passengers to keep the windows shut and move their beds closer to their doors to keep them from getting wet, Xinhua said. Some passengers began dragging wet bedding into the hallway.
The Eastern Star’s captain, Zhang Shunwen—a three-decade veteran of Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp., the ship’s owner, which named him one of its outstanding employees last year—told Xinhua in his first reported comments released Friday that he was struggling in moderate northward winds at 9:20 p.m. when the gusts suddenly intensified.
With the ship becoming harder and harder to control, Mr. Zhang turned hard to port, he said, but found the maneuver of no help in the face of irresistible winds. The Xinhua article didn’t address whether the captain was asked why he didn’t dock the ship.
The satellite data show the Eastern Star moving northwest across the river at 9:21 when it suddenly took a sharp turn to the east. A minute later it appears to have spun around violently and begun moving slowly downriver, presumably carried by the current.
The ship’s chief engineer, Yang Zhongquan, told Xinhua in the report released Friday that he had just returned from inspecting the main deck when water entered the engine room and the lights went out. “At that point, I thought the boat had already flipped over,” he said.
Given the short distance between the water and the main deck on the Eastern Star, a sharp turn to port could have exposed the ship’s port flank to the brunt of the wind, tipping it to starboard and leading to water flooding the engine room, said Richard Hurley, principal maritime analyst with information provider IHS Maritime & Trade. Based on the satellite data, he said, “Whatever occurred happened very fast.”
Authorities have attributed the accident to a rare, short-lived tornado they say descended suddenly on the ship.
Tornadoes are rare in China and thus little studied by weather experts there. A study by an engineer with China Nuclear Power Design Co. Ltd. found that Jianli recorded six tornadoes between 1950 and 2007, more than most counties in the area. “In China, because tornadoes have always been so infrequent, we currently don’t include them in warnings about destructive weather,” said Li Ting, a weather expert with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, adding that weather conditions in Jianli at the time indicate a tornado was possible.
Zhang Hui, the tour guide, told state media he was leaving his office on the ship’s starboard side to return to his cabin when the vessel began to shift at around 9:20.
‘Looks like we’re in trouble’
—Zhang Hui, tour guide
“Looks like we’re in trouble,” he recalled telling a colleague as bottles rolled off his desk. Moments later, the ship tilted up at a 90-degree angle and began to flip over. Stuck in neck-high water, Mr. Zhang quickly grabbed a life vest, found a window and crawled out.
“The capsizing happened in maybe 30 seconds, no more than 60 seconds,” he said.
In Mr. Wu’s cabin, he told Xinhua, the tilting of the boat caused Ms. Li’s bed to slide, pinning her against the wall, and sent a carpet tumbling onto Mr. Wu’s head. By the time he pushed the carpet away, the water had flooded in and started pushing him toward the window.
“That window, after being on the boat a few days, I’d opened it and closed it, closed it and opened. I knew it well,” Mr. Wu told Xinhua.
The farmer reached for the latch, sprung it with one hand and rode the rising water out into the river.
When he surfaced, the ship’s bottom was visible above the surface of the river.
The state media accounts haven’t specified how the captain and the engineer made it out. After they were rescued, both were detained for questioning. They haven’t been accused of wrongdoing.
The captain’s wife, who was also working on the ship, is among the missing.
Once the bodies are tallied, the sinking of the Eastern Star is likely to rank as China’s worst nautical disaster in 65 years. The death toll hit 396 on Saturday after salvage crews hoisted the waterlogged ship out of the river Friday. Mr. Wu was among only 14 people of the total of 456 people on board to emerge alive.
Days later, Mr. Wu told Xinhua he could still feel the ground swaying underneath him. “Out of eight people, seven didn’t come back. My wife is gone. The other six were neighbors I’d known all my life,” he said.
“This is the first time I’ve ever traveled far from home.”
—Colum Murphy, Olivia Geng and Kersten Zhang contributed to this article.