Stricken Chinese cruise ship lifted from Yangtze River; hundreds of bodies recovered

Story highlights

The Eastern Star turns upright after divers tied slings around it and a crane lifted it

Some oil leaked from the ship into the Yangtze River, a government official says

Jianli, China CNN —  

Soldiers retrieved the body of a 3-year-old girl on the fourth floor of a capsized Chinese cruise ship, adding to a grim, growing toll.

The ship’s positioning was a step forward in the nightmare playing out in the Yangtze River after the Eastern Star capsized Monday night.

It also means closure could be coming soon to hundreds of families.

At least 396 bodies had been recovered by Saturday, according to Chinese state media. There are 46 people still unaccounted for.

Of the 456 people on board, 14 survived. But rescuers have had no luck since Tuesday, the last time two people were pulled out of the water alive.

The chances of more miracles have dwindled with each passing day. And the salvage process has begun.

Scores of ships, thousands of soldiers involved

That process involved huge floating cranes that set up alongside the overturned river cruise ship, dropped cables and hooks into the water, rolled the ship upright and raised it to the surface. About 50 divers took part overnight Thursday by tying slings around the 2,200-ton vessel, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

State-run CCTV News tweeted pictures of the Eastern Star after this happened Friday. Parts of its top level looked smashed, but the other levels appeared largely intact. By draining the ship, the idea is that it could again float on its own.

After going through the submerged, capsized ship for three days, rescuers can now walk its decks and open spaces. Since it has been lifted, the idea is to go cabin by cabin looking for survivors and bodies in every corner.

The idea is to go cabin by cabin, looking for people who may have, by chance, survived in a cranny inside – and for the many who most certainly did not. It’s all part of a huge operation involving nearly 150 other ships, 59 machines, over 3,400 Chinese troops and 1,700 paramilitary personnel, Xinhua said.

In addition to the human toll, there’s an environmental toll from oil leaked into the Yangtze River, Transport Ministry spokesman Xu Chengguang said.

One man’s heavy grief

Jian was desperate to know what happened to his mother, father, aunt and uncle, who were sailing on the 11-day cruise from Nanjing to Chongqing.

So the man, who asked that his last name not be published, joined dozens of others missing their loved ones in Jianli County to wait for answers. The nation is sharing their grief; for China, the accident is a national tragedy.

But Jian has not been willing to just sit and wait. He found the ship on a map and hired a motorcycle driver to take him to the riverside to get as close to the vessel as possible.

He arrived at a muddy path along the Yangtze.

“When I was slogging through the ankle-high muddy path along the Yangtze River, all of a sudden I remembered a similar path where my dad took me to fish when I was a kid,” he said. “I immediately took my cell phone out, dialed my dad’s number again and again, but there was no answer.”

“I couldn’t see the ship. But I was so close to him. I just wanted to be closer.”

Jian says he accepts the fact that his loved ones have died.

“It was almost a sure thing that nobody was alive,” he said after seeing the waters.

Anger at government

Some family members have been angry with the government for not doing enough to save their loved ones from the river.

Jian is among those who haven’t been satisfied with the response, but he remains calm.

On Thursday, he joined other family members and locals who gathered in Jianli’s town square for a somber candlelight vigil in honor of the hundreds of people presumed dead.

Family members say they have been giving blood samples to provide the DNA necessary for identifying the bodies pulled from the wreckage.

Angry relatives of passengers make own way to wreck

Support

In the town of Jianli, not far from the stretch of river where the Eastern Star capsized, crowds of children chattered with excitement Friday morning as they tied hundreds of fluttering yellow ribbons to a fence outside their school.

The ribbons are part of a campaign of support for victims of the cruise ship accident.

Nine-year-old Yi Duo Duo wrote on his ribbon, “I wish you come back safe,” before tying it to the fence.

Other residents have put up signs of sympathy outside their homes and businesses.

Questions over cause of disaster

Many questions remain about what happened to the Eastern Star on Monday night.

Authorities have taken the captain and the chief engineer into custody but have revealed little about what they have said, other than that a tornado hit the ship.

It’s unclear why the Eastern Star was the only ship on the busy waterway so badly affected by the storm.

Satellite information from a website run by the Chinese Transportation Ministry shows the cruise ship suddenly changing direction a matter of minutes before authorities say it sank.

But what caused the ship to start moving downstream rather than upstream isn’t clear. One possibility is that the change in direction came after the ship was left disabled and drifting by the storm.

Top government officials have demanded an investigation into the cause of the disaster.

Capsized ship: What we know

CNN’s Yuli Yang, Shen Lu, Kevin Wang and translator Wayne Chang contributed to this report.