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China Ship Disaster: Is ‘Outstanding’ Captain Culpable?

Ian Williams Describes Rescue Operations on Yangtze River 0:34

BEIJING — Three years before the cruise ship he was steering capsized in the Yangtze River, the Chinese government honored captain Zhang Shunwen for saving the life of an elderly man who had suffered an asthma attack.

Zhang is now the focus of attention after his ship, the Eastern Star, sank on Monday night during a fierce storm, in what may be China's worst maritime disaster in almost 70 years. At least 19 bodies have been found and more than 400 people are missing.

Zhang escaped alive and is in police custody, although he has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Until the incident, Zhang was regarded as an effective captain. He received an "outstanding employee" award by the Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corporation last year, state news agency Xinhua cited Liu Yiqing, an electrician and colleague of Zhang, as saying.

The son of a former shipping captain, he has been a captain for more than a decade, said Zhao Chunyuan, a retired cargo ship captain who used to work with Zhang.

WATCH: Last Known Video of Eastern Star, 30 Minutes Before Sinking 0:36

"He was a good man and I think there must be objective reasons for the cause of the accident," Zhao told Reuters by telephone.

Zhang was quoted as saying by Xinhua that the ship overturned "within one or two minutes". He was dragged out of the water near a pier just before midnight on Monday.

He could be found culpable if he had abandoned the ship, said James Hu, professor at the Shanghai Maritime University and an expert in maritime law, though there is no evidence he did.

"China has one rule that it's particularly strict on — the captain must be the last one to leave the ship," Hu said. "If the leader of the ship is not the last to leave the ship, it is a jailable offence."