Chinese military officials and soldiers described the grim task of removing hundreds of bodies from the salvaged wreckage of the capsized Eastern Star cruise ship Saturday as busloads of families were borne down to the banks of the Yangtze River to mourn the dead.
Authorities said Saturday afternoon that after working through the night, they had recovered a total of 396 corpses and their search of the vessel was now complete. Fourteen people survived Monday night’s tragedy, and 46 people remain unaccounted for. Only six of the 396 recovered bodies were found outside the ship.
As soldiers and other personnel worked through the night wearing white hazmat suits and life jackets, searching with flashlights, they said they encountered hallways jammed with furniture and other debris. At times, the stench inside the ship was overpowering and many bodies were swollen, stiff or decomposed. Locked cabin doors and rooms filled with mud and silt also hampered the recovery work, and firefighters were called in at times to clear passageways.
More than 700 troops were tasked with removing the victims; a team of six was assigned to each body. Because the Eastern Star overturned in a remote area, the bodies had to be carried more than two miles to the closest road, then transported in vehicles to the mortuary in Jianli, a small agricultural town.
“When we entered the cabins, we all felt overcome by emotion,” said Zeng Xianmei, chief nurse at the paramilitary hospital in the nearby metropolis of Wuhan, choking up at a news conference.
Liu Xiaowu, chief of staff of a brigade from Guangzhou, said he was particularly determined to recover the remains of the youngest passenger, a 3-year-old girl on a trip with her grandparents. Her body was found in a first-class cabin on the upper deck.
“When our soldiers finally discovered her body, they all cried,” he said. “We all have children.”
Liu and other officials said work would now begin to collect victims’ personal effects from the Eastern Star.
Zhang Shifeng of the Ministry of Civil Affairs said authorities had worked out a standard for processing the bodies and that DNA had been collected from the 387 corpses that had arrived at mortuaries by Saturday afternoon.
Read more: Chicago Tribune