BEIJING (AP) — Chinese authorities blamed freak weather for the capsizing of a cruise ship that killed hundreds earlier this year, but also recommended that the captain be further investigated and representatives of the shipping company and local authorities be punished for management flaws, state media announced Wednesday.
The disaster on the Yangtze River on the evening of June 1 killed 442 people and left just 12 survivors. The Eastern Star was carrying many elderly tourists on a 10-day cruise from Nanjing in China's east upstream to Chongqing.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the Cabinet's investigation team concluded that the Eastern Star was brought down "by strong winds and heavy rains" associated with a downburst, a strong downdraft that is "a very rare weather phenomenon."
The conclusion backs up the initial finding that the disaster was caused by strong winds, although passengers' relatives have raised questions about whether the ship should have continued its voyage despite a weather warning.
Xinhua said the investigation team found that 36 local government and Communist Party officials and seven people from the shipping company should be given administrative punishments for flaws in management, which would likely include demotions and firings.
The seven included the captain and the officer in charge at the time, who died in the disaster. The investigation found the pair responded inadequately to the emergency and had not properly ascertained the threat posed by the dire weather conditions, Xinhua said.
It recommended that the ship's captain, Zhang Shunwen, have his license revoked and his contract terminated, and that his case be sent for further investigation to determine whether he should face criminal charges.
The captain was arrested after he was rescued from the river, with investigators looking into why he chose to sail into the storm instead of dropping anchor. Investigators had also been expected to focus on alterations made to the ship. A government agency had earlier cited the ship for safety violations.
Qin Meiping, who lost her 73-year-old father and 49-year-old brother, questioned whether the modifications to the vessel had been safe.
"If you blame it on the weather, why were the other two boats that were also traveling at that time safe? Why was this boat modified three times before? Were the modifications done properly?" asked Qin, who said she has had "tears in my eyes every day since" the sinking. "We are not experts, but is the report by the experts the truth?"
She pointed to other deadly disasters in China in the past year, including a stampede in Shanghai on New Year's Eve 2014, explosions at a chemical warehouse in Tianjin and the toppling of a mountain of construction waste that buried a large area in Shenzhen.
"It will happen again if people do not face the truth and don't admit there are management problems," she said.
Associated Press news assistant Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report.