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Saturday, June 6, 2015, 11:43

Almost-passenger recalls wife lost in ship disaster

By Associated Press
Almost-passenger recalls wife lost in ship disaster
In this photo taken on June 4, 2015, Zhang Jianwei looks at an album with photos of his wife, Zheng Zhenwen, who was onboard the capsized tourist ship Eastern Star at their home in Shanghai. (AP Photo)

JIANLI, China — Zhang Jianwei's grumpy refusal to join his wife's birthday plans saved two lives in this week's Chinese cruise boat tragedy.

His wife Zheng Zhenwen booked a Yantze River cruise for the two of them and their grandchild to celebrate her own 60th birthday, but Zhang didn't feel up to it. He told her to cancel.

"I told her there was no way I was going. I said she was welcome to go by herself," Zhang said. Their 7-year-old granddaughter had been booked to travel with them, but it was decided that she would be too much work for Zheng alone, so she stayed home as well.

Zheng went ahead, along with 22 neighbors and friends, and was among the 456 on board — many of them retirees — when the ship went down in ferocious weather Monday night on the Yangtze, China's mightiest river.

"So you see," Zhang said Friday, seated at a restaurant in Jianli, the closest city to the site of the sinking, "I saved two lives. But I lost a wife, my son lost a mother and his daughter lost a grandmother."

Four days after the tragedy, Zhang seems prepared to accept that his wife of more than 30 years won't be coming back. Workers on Friday returned the ship to an upright position and began pumping it dry in order to retrieve bodies and make it float again. Only 14 people survived, including the captain and chief engineer.

"I've come to take care of all the final arrangements. I'll stay as long as necessary," said the 64-year-old retired food industry worker, who was accompanied by his son, sister-in-law and other Shanghainese whose relatives were also on the cruise.

Almost-passenger recalls wife lost in ship disaster
In this photo taken on June 4, 2015, Zhang Jianwei (left) and his neighbors watch a press conference on TV on the capsized tourist ship Eastern Star , which Zhang's wife was aboard, at his home in Shanghai. (AP Photo)

Also accompanying Zhang was a group of mid-level Communist Party cadres, assigned to manage the family members' transport and accommodation in an unfamiliar city while providing emotional support.

Zhang expressed appreciation for the cadres, saying they've helped ease the burden of grief in addition to providing practical help.

"They've been very thoughtful and they've been a great comfort to us. Here in China we really are like a big family," he said.

As for the cause of the accident, he said he's willing to wait for the government to announce the results of the investigation.

Zhang said he last spoke to his wife around 9 pm Monday as they were preparing to call it a night.

"She asked me if it was raining in Shanghai. I said no, and then she said it was coming down like crazy on the boat," Zhang said.

Just 28 minutes later, the boat went down in an instant after the captain lost control in what meteorologists say was a freak tornado brought on by high winds and torrential rains. The accident was set to become China's worst maritime disaster in seven decades.

Almost-passenger recalls wife lost in ship disaster
Chinese soldiers ride their boats to the embankment after their search and rescue operation near a capsized cruise ship on the Yangtze River in Jianli in China's Hubei province, June 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Zhang said he found out early the next day after turning on the news. "I called my son, then went into total shock," he said.

The two rushed to the travel agency that had arranged the tickets, along with hundreds of other Shanghainese who had loved ones on the cruise. Finding it closed, with an announcement on the door saying the manager had rushed to the accident site, they moved on to government offices looking for help and answers.

Zhang described his wife as a vivacious woman who made friends easily and loved to travel. As well as various Chinese holiday spots, she'd been to Thailand, a favorite destination for Chinese traveling overseas for the first time.

Left disabled after surgery for a cerebral hemorrhage four years ago, Zhang said his wife looked after him every day, laying out his clothes and taking care of the housework. "She took really good care of me, never gave up on me."

On Friday morning, he took the 6:50 am train to Yueyang, the closest station to Jianli, along with seven other people, all from his family or a neighboring one in the same building.

The night before departing, he left the apartment key with a neighbor, asking her to water the flowers.

"It was what my wife had asked me to do before the trip," Zhang said. "I promised her and I will make sure it's done."

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