The sinking of a cruise ship on the Yangtze River has marred China’s generally clean maritime safety record.
There hasn’t been an incident of this magnitude since a passenger steamship blew up almost 70 years ago, Reuters reported.
The Eastern Star, which was carrying 458 people, capsized in a storm late Monday, state media said, those on board ranging in age from three to over 80.
Six bodies have been found and over a dozen people rescued, but more than 430 are still unaccounted for.
The incident comes after China beefed up maritime safety regulations in recent years.
Authorities became even stricter after last year’s South Korean ferry disaster, in which more than 300 people died, industry insiders said.
“As compared to the large volumes of passengers transported in [China's] coastal areas and inland waterways, I don’t think there exists a very serious problem with regard to safety,” James Hu, a professor at Shanghai Maritime University, was quoted as saying.
“I’ve met with Korean and Japanese experts, and our conclusion has been that China’s laws with regard to passenger ships and their enforcement are the strictest.”
Hu said these regulations ranged from vessel construction standards to age restrictions on passenger ships to crew qualifications.
In recent years, the Maritime Safety Administration has also become stricter about safety precautions, especially in areas like Bohai Bay in northeast China, where it will prevent ships from sailing once winds become too strong, he said.
The Changjiang Maritime Safety Administration, responsible for a third of the Yangtze, said there were just 16 cases of incidents involving ships last year, which left 32 people missing or dead.
The regulator oversees the passage of about 60,000 ships each year.
In the worst previous incident of its kind in China, the steamship Kiangya blew up on the Huangpu river in southeast China in 1948, killing more than 1,000 people.
More recently, 280 people died in 1999 after a ferry caught fire and capsized in the Yellow Sea close to the port city of Yantai in Shandong province.
The Eastern Star passed inspections by authorities in Chongqing last month before it sailed for Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, near Shanghai, unnamed officials at the Nanjing Maritime Bureau told the People’s Daily.
It was not checked at the Nanjing port, as such ships tend to receive safety inspections every three months.
When the vessel capsized, it was about midway on an 11-day cruise from Nanjing to Chongqing, winding upstream with stops at scenic and historic sites.
The ship was owned by the Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp., a state-owned company that runs tours along the Three Gorges section of the Yangtze.
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