SCMP Friday, June 23, 2000

Scores still missing in Yangtze shipwreck

REUTERS in Beijing

Updated at 6.46pm:
Mainland rescue workers are searching for about 120 people still missing a day after an overloaded ferry hit rocks in thick fog and capsized on the Yangtze River, Xinhua (the New China News Agency) said on Friday.

By early Friday morning, only 14 bodies had been recovered.

Xinhua said 63 people had been rescued from the passenger ship Rong Jian, which was crammed with about 200 people, mostly farmers from Hejiang county in the southwestern province of Sichuan on their way to a country fair. The ship had a capacity of just 70 passengers.

All the pasengers were tossed into the water after the vessel capsized early on Thursday morning on a fast-flowing stretch of the river near the city of Luzhou in Sichuan.

The Beijing Youth Daily quoted one survivior, 45-year-old farmer Chen Shuwen, as saying there were more than 200 people standing on the ferry's two levels, many laden with vegetables and rice to sell at the fair.

''We'd been going about an hour and could see we were almost at our destination,'' Mr Chen said. ''Suddenly the boat started to tip. Everyone on board was really scared and some started shouting. Then the boat turned over.''

Mr Chen said he could not swim but survived the next two hours in the swirling waters of the Yangtze by clinging to a wooden pole until he found a life belt floating in the water.

His younger brother and sister-in-law were among the missing.

Mainland ferries are often overloaded and accidents are common, although relatively few are on the scale of Thursday's tragedy.

Xinhua said the ferry was owned by a farmer who bought it from a steamship company.

None of the passengers had been issued tickets for the voyage, so there was no record of the exact number of people on board.

In November, 280 people were drowned when a ferry caught fire and capsized in freezing conditions off the coast of Shandong in one of mainland's worst shipping disasters in recent years.