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China ship tragedy toll above 400, relatives remember dead

A Chinese rescue worker throws flowers into the river to pay respect to the victims of the Eastern Star disaster after a memorial service in front of the raised cruise ship, in Jianli on June 7, 2015/AFP

A Chinese rescue worker throws flowers into the river to pay respect to the victims of the Eastern Star disaster after a memorial service in front of the raised cruise ship, in Jianli on June 7, 2015/AFP

JIANLI, June 7- Rescuers bowed their heads and ships’ hooters blared in tribute Sunday to the victims of Communist China‘s worst shipping disaster, as relatives of the 431 dead and 11 still missing spoke of their grief.

The solemn ceremony was held to remember the dead after the “Eastern Star” cruise ship carrying 456 people capsized late Monday on the Yangtze River in a storm.

Searchers in white hooded surgical suits could be seen on board the Eastern Star. Others in work gear, orange safety vests and military style fatigues formed columns on the deck of a massive floating crane, one of three that had raised the ship on Friday.

The event, attended by Transport Minister Yang Chuantang, went ahead under grey and cloudy skies.

Officials on Sunday announced that the death toll had risen to 431, with another 11 people still missing.

Only 14 survivors have been confirmed out of all those aboard, who were mostly tourists aged over 60, after the ship capsized at night in Jianli country in the central province of Hubei.

In accordance with traditional custom, relatives of the dead should mourn loved ones on the seventh day by Chinese reckoning following their death.

Information about the sinking, and media access to the site and to relatives of passengers, has been tightly controlled. Online criticism of the search has been quickly deleted.

China‘s stability-obsessed Communist rulers often try to contain anger over the official handling of disasters, fearing that it could spiral into dissent.

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A petition posted by family members on the social media service WeChat has called for the death penalty for the ship’s captain — one of the few survivors of the disaster — who is in police custody.

But rather than anger or recriminations, relatives made available for interviews on Sunday spoke of their grief, regret and impossible hopes.

“I wish my father and mother would come back,” said Wang Hua, who lost her father Wang Xingkui and mother Li Yulin.

“I wish the whole thing was just made up. Even now, I still can’t believe it’s true,” she added, crying helplessly into her handkerchief.

“They were so kind, I never imagined such a tragic thing would happen to them.”

Fu Conghai, whose brother Fu Hongsheng and nephew Fu Jinning were on the boat, said the next step was to identify their bodies.

“We are waiting for the DNA test results, and when they have completed that and can confirm them, we can meet our loved ones,” he said, referring to the possibility of viewing the remains.

Wang, Fu and other selected relatives spoke to reporters at venues arranged by the authorities and were watched by officials during the interviews.

The death toll on Saturday had jumped by over 200 after rescuers had used the massive cranes to hoist the vessel out of the water the day before and began recovering bodies trapped inside.

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It was China‘s worst shipping disaster since the Communist Party came to power in 1949. In  1948 up to 4,000 on board the SS Kiangya were killed when it sank near Shanghai.

Officials on Saturday extended their search for victims who may have been swept far beyond the accident site. The search scope was extended to 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) of the Yangtze, Asia’s longest river, in hopes of finding those still unaccounted for.

A government spokesman has said no further survivors were expected.

News of the disaster remained the top trending topic on Chinese social media, and attention Sunday was focused on mourning.

“May the dead be at peace in heaven and the living be strong,” posted a user of Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter.

Reports have said the 76.5 metre long (250 feet) and 2,200 tonne ship overturned in less than a minute. Weather officials said a freak tornado hit the area at the time.

The vessel was cited for safety infractions two years ago, and CCTV said investigators would probe its structure for any flaws.

Wang, from the eastern province of Shandong, said her parents had not told her they were going on the trip until just before their departure, which worried her and her brother.

She last spoke to her father on May 31, when he said he was enjoying the cruise along the Yangtze.

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But something he said caused her further unease

“I heard him laughing,” she said. “He offered my child best wishes for his upcoming birthday and then said ‘This is my last phone call’.

“I couldn’t help thinking about that.”

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