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Saturday, June 6, 2015, 19:27

Yangtze toll reaches 396, company apologizes

By Agencies

Yangtze toll reaches 396, company apologizes
Paramilitary policemen in white overalls wait to recover bodies from the Eastern Star after it is righted and lifted by cranes in the Yangtze River in Jianli county in China's Hubei province, June 5, 2015.(Chinatopix Via AP)

JIANLI, Hubei - The death toll from the sinking of a Chinese cruise ship on the Yangtze River during freak weather climbed to 396 on Saturday, with some 40 still unaccounted for.

On Saturday morning, the body of the youngest victim - a three-year-old girl - was found on the fourth floor of the overturned ship, which was righted and hoisted out of water on Friday.

Only 14 people survived the accident, and 46 people remain missing, according to the rescue headquarters in Jianli, Central China's Hubei province.

The 2,200-ton Eastern Star was carrying 456 people on an 11-day trip along China's biggest river when it was capsized by a tornado near Jianli on Monday night.

Rescuers found six bodies after combing some 200 km of waterway downstream, Zhou Xuguang, commander of the Hubei Corps of the Chinese People's Armed Police Force, said during a press conference on Saturday afternoon.

All cabins on the ship have now been sterilized to prevent any possible outbreak of disease.

Zhang Shifeng with the Ministry of Civil Affairs said on Saturday that families of the victims will be able to pay tribute to the deceased in the vicinity of the accident site.

Local authorities have put the waters where the ship sank under traffic control indefinitely, said Xu Chengguang of the Ministry of Transport.

"We put the traffic control in place so as to better focus on salvage work," Xu said.

Yangtze toll reaches 396, company apologizes
In this photo released by China' Xinhua News Agency, rescuers work in the hull of the upright Eastern Star ship in the section of Jianli on the Yangtze River, China's Hubei province June 6, 2015. (Bai Yu/Xinhua via AP)

Meanwhile, rescuers are trying to shed load from the Eastern Star to help it float on water by itself, as mattresses, sofas and quilts that rolled to the left side of the ship have absorbed too much water, making it hard for the cruiser to stay afloat. The ship is currently held afloat by three floating cranes.

The Ministry of Transport said on Saturday that oil leaking from the capsized ship has been cleaned up.

On Friday night, Jiang Zhao, legal representative of Chongqing Dongfang Shipping Company that owns the Eastern Star , bowed and apologized to all the victims and their families and promised to “fully cooperate with any investigation”.

The 76.5-meter vessel had been in service for nearly 20 years and can carry up to 534 people. It went through an annual maintenance in late 2014, and was qualified to cruise until April 25, 2016, according to Jiang.

More than 3,400 soldiers and 1,700 police officers together with 149 vessels and a helicopter have taken part in the search and rescue mission.

Chinese authorities have attributed the accident to sudden high winds just before 9:30 pm, but also have placed the surviving captain and first engineer under police custody.

Passengers' relatives have raised questions about whether the boat should have continued on after the storm started and despite a weather warning earlier in the evening.

Yangtze toll reaches 396, company apologizes
In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, rescuers work in the hull of the upright Eastern Star ship to launch rescue work in the section of Jianli on the Yangtze River, China's Hubei Province, June 6, 2015. (Bai Yu/Xinhua via AP)

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