The Yuexi Boat Disaster

From Associated Press (via

At least 28 people drowned and 10 were rescued when a farmer's overloaded boat capsized while ferrying passengers from a fair in southwest China, state television reported Thursday.

The boat was registered to carry only two passengers at a time and was being used illegally to ferry people across a river in Sichuan province's Yuechi County when it sank on Wednesday, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Ten people were rescued and 28 bodies were recovered, a state television news report said, up from original reports on Wednesday of six bodies recovered.  Rescuers were uncertain how many people were aboard when the boat sank, Xinhua said. It said children and elderly people were among those killed, but gave no specifics.

The river, which runs through the county's Youxi town, is about 65 feet wide and 10 feet deep, according to Xinhua. A news photo showed the boat was a simple metal hull with no seats.

Officials at the county and town level reached by telephone refused to talk to a reporter about the incident. One man who answered the phone at the Youxi police department said he had been instructed not to talk to the press and hung up.

So how can 38 people fit into a two-person boat?  When I think of a two-person boat, I conjure up an image such as this one below.  It is difficult for me to see how 38 people could fit into such a boat.

So I tried to find other accounts of this incident.  According to China Daily, the physical dimensions of the boat are:

The cause of the sinking was overloading, said Lin Shucheng, chief of the Sichuan Safety Supervision Administration.  Owned by Tang Yongsheng, a local farmer in Youxi Town who died in the incident, the boat was 9.57 metres long and 1.97 metres wide. It was only registered to carry a small number of passengers.

Here, the words do not help the imagination and some photographs would definitely help.  The most commonly found photograph associated with this incident is this one.  The boat is so small that it is inconceivable that 38 people could be squeezed into it, and it also did not meet the physical dimentions (9.57 metres long). 

This boat is a rescue boat used by the public security officers and divers.  Note that even this small boat was carrying five people already.

After looking at many different accounts, I found the photographs of the sunken passenger boat that was pulled out of the river.  It looks bigger than a two-person boat.

But to appreciate what really happened, it is necessary to revert to words again.  The following is a translation of a Xinhua interview with a survivor:

62-year-old Wang is one of the survivors of the disaster.  If it were not for the fact that the people living by the river heard the cries for help and threw out some air-filled flotation devices, Wang would have died with the other 28 people.

According to Wang, the less-than-10-meter long boat was carrying 30 to 40 passengers, plus a lot of merchandise such as animal feed, yam, etc.  About 200 meters after the boat departed, the water began to enter from a hole at the front of the boat due to overloading. 

Wang said: "It was chaos with so many people.  People were holding onto each other.  Some people were struggling in the water.  But as soon as they got their heads above water, they were pulled down by others next to them.  I am more than 60 years old.  I know how to swim.  But I was running out of strength.  At the time, I had given up hope."

"It was dangerous with so many people on the boat.  Why did you still get on?" asked the reporter.

Wang hesitated and said: "I knew that it would be dangerous.  When I and my wife go out to the fair, we usually take the boat but sometimes we take a car ride.  There were also times when there were many people and a lot of merchandise before, but nothing has ever happened ... sigh!  It costs 50 cents to take the boat, and one can bring 50 to 100 kilograms of merchandise.  If we take the car, we would have to pay one RMB; if we have merchandise, that would be another 50 cents.  Besides, the pier is close to our home."

Wang stayed silent for a while and then he said: "I was lucky this time to escape with my life.  I will never get into an overloaded boat again."

Here is the hole in the front of the boat:

The purpose of this exercise is to illustrate how difficult it is to get a reasonable understanding of an incident, and how it is necessary to refer to multiple accounts in order to piece together a picture which may not even be correct.