Monday, April 23, 2012

Titanic of China

While Cameron released a newly remade 3-D version of his classic Titanic, many Chinese movie goers still have fresh memory of DASHUN, a 9000 tons ferry who sank on Nov 24, 1999 near Yantai, Shangdong Province. Of 304 on-board, 283 did not make it alive. Only one female passenger were among the 22 survivors. No seniors nor children were rescued from rough sea.

In addition to blunders made by the ferry company, the performance of PLA Navy and Air Force was criticized by observers. It took more than 8 hours for fire to burn down the 9000 tons ship merely 1 mile offshore. Through out the time, the Navy and Air Force refused to dispatch airplanes for rescue, even though the Fifth Wing of PLA Air Force, and the Northern Sea Fleet of PLA Navy were only stationed at distance of a stone's throw away.

At 19:30, top brasses in Beijing ordered five ships of the PLA Navy Rescue Fleet to respond. Unbelievably, one reported engine failure, thus couldn't start. Another lost power before leaving the port. The third one barely sailed out the port before it got lost. The fourth one reported high wave, then returned to safety. A lonely 686 carried on in the journey.

At 21:38, DAXUN sanked 100 meters away from PLA Navy 686. None onboard 686 attempted to rescue except shooting life ropes down the sea. Of the 22 survivors, none were saved by PLA Navy. Contrary to reports of a severe snowstorm often cited as the main obstacle in rescue, the weather was at a mild 7 Celsius (44.6 Fahrenheit), and there was no snow until 8 o'clock the next morning.

Much can be blamed on training and ethics of the PLA soldiers and officers. However, the maritime tragedy carried an undertone of a bigger issue, both political and philosophical of the PLA Navy.

While the ferry company and local government asked the PLA Navy to send large ships for assistance in rescue, they were told all larger ships were out training. However, given the geographic location of the area, obviously that would not be the case. The PLA Navy has the tradition to keep larger boats away from any risks. As a result, all five boats, 681、683、684、685,686 are 300-400 tons gun boats, sub hunters and even a tug boat.

On January 19, 1974, six Chinese sub hunters defeated a South Vietnamese task force of 3 destroyers and 1 frigate. At the time, China had many destroyers, but rather opted much smaller sub hunters.

On March 14, 1988, in another conflict with Vietnam, Commodore Chen Weiwen ordered three Chinese warships open fire. Six islands were recovered, but Chen was blocked from promotion till he retired in 1995.

It seemed no picture was left of the capsized DASHUN. Can Chinese people count on this navy to face off against regional rivals such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan or India?

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