ANHUI, East China — Despite the accident, Dong Yue still likes to travel. She and her mother once vowed to see a new part of the world every year. Last fall, Dong visited the Taiwanese coast with friends. Photos show the bluest of seas, stretching from one end of the horizon to the other, in all its serenity.
Earlier in the year, on Jan. 28, Dong and her mother were passengers on a catamaran sailing through similarly azure waters off the coast of Sabah, a state on the Malaysian part of Borneo, along with 26 other Chinese tourists and three local crew members. Halfway through the trip, the boat sank. Dong and other survivors spent more than a day adrift, battling relentless waves and blistering sunlight. When they were finally rescued, four people had died and five had gone missing, including Dong’s mother. “It was all like a nightmare,” Dong tells The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication.
Today, the injuries on Dong’s face and body have more or less healed. Her inner wounds, however, may take much longer.
Dong Yue and her mother, Dong Mei, flew to Malaysia on Jan. 26, 2017, planning to spend the weeklong lunar new year holiday in and around Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital. They had booked tickets for the region’s most popular one-day cruise to Mengalum, a small island where tourists can laze about on white-sand beaches or dive into crystal-clear water.
On the morning of Jan. 28 — New Year’s Day on the lunar calendar — Dong Yue and Dong Mei packed their swimsuits and camera, and rushed to Kota Kinabalu’s Tanjung Aru jetty. Some 75 Chinese tourists had assembled by the water, where they were divided among three boats; Dong Yue, her mother, and the remaining Chinese tourists excitedly boarded the third — somewhat-seaworn — boat and set off at around 9:30 a.m.
Mengalum was roughly 56 kilometers away; if everything went smoothly, they were to reach the island in an hour and a half. Battered by waves, the catamaran rocked and swayed. Some people began to feel seasick — including Dong Yue, even though she had taken a motion sickness pill before boarding. Her mother’s reassurances that they would soon reach land were echoed by a crew member, who said they were nearly at the island. But after traveling for around 40 minutes, the boat suddenly stopped, and water began entering at the stern. Crew members bailed water out of the bottom with a large bucket, yet the boat continued to list toward the back-left corner.
Still feeling unwell, Dong Yue hadn’t moved from her spot, thinking to herself that everything would be fine once they dealt with the incoming water. But soon after, someone said it was no use, and the crew began ordering the tourists to put on life jackets and jump overboard. As people screamed and cried, Dong Mei made her way out to the deck and called to her daughter to jump with her. Dong Yue had no time to think; she leapt, terrified, and sank into the sea, choking on several mouthfuls of seawater.
Just a moment later, the entire boat capsized and disappeared beneath the surface.
An undated handout made available after the accident shows the tourist catamaran that later sank in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia. Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency/EPA/IC
There were only four life preservers on board, lashed together with rope. Floating in the water, the tourists clung to them to stay together. Holding on to one life preserver were Dong Mei and Dong Yue; a man from Suzhou surnamed Yan, his wife, and their 16-year-old daughter; and another man, Jiangjian, along with his 17-year-old son. Floating in a circle around the small buoy, each person could only grasp the device with one hand.
While Dong Yue and her mother were floating in the sea, her father, Cao Hengye, was at home hosting a Spring Festival get-together. It was noon on the first day of the lunar new year, and all of Cao’s relatives had gathered at the family home in Hefei, capital of eastern China’s Anhui province, where Cao had prepared a vast spread of delicacies. In the morning, Cao had exchanged messages with his wife and daughter, who said they’d left the hotel some time after 7 a.m. and planned to spend the day on Mengalum Island. He didn’t think much of the fact that, by evening, he couldn’t get in touch with them.
The next morning, Cao drove out to visit an uncle. On the way, he turned on the radio, only to hear a news segment about a tourist boat that had sunk in Malaysia. Worried, he tried once more to contact his wife and daughter, but to no avail. He then sped to his office, where he called the Chinese consulate in Malaysia, which confirmed that his wife and daughter were on the missing boat. But the consulate had no idea what had happened to the vessel or its passengers.
In the first few hours, Dong Yue was confident they would soon be rescued by another boat. The crew members, too, said that by around 4 or 5 p.m., boats returning from Mengalum Island would see them. But by then, in the seven hours that had passed, they had floated away from the main route and were being pushed farther and farther by the waves.
With no sign of any other vessels, two crew members decided just before nightfall that they would swim back to shore, promising to immediately send a rescue crew when they got there. But help did not arrive; the group had no idea whether the two crew members even made it alive. In the dark of night, they were surrounded by an expanse of nothingness. The only bottle of water Dong Yue and her mother had held enough liquid for them to drink a mouthful each. They had no other provisions.
The night sky was plastered with stars, whose light sparkled on the surface of the water. At one point, the passengers mistook the dots of light coming from the many distant lighthouses for those of vessels. But the dots didn’t move, and after a while, their hopes vanished. Later, a large boat passed in the distance. Someone in the group turned on their cellphone flashlight, but its faint glow was lost in the darkness.
As they bobbed in the waves, the life preservers repeatedly smacked against the heads of those who clung to them. The passengers’ faces began to develop sores from soaking in the ice-cold seawater for so long, and their heads were covered with blisters from the harsh sunlight. Waves repeatedly beat against Dong Yue’s body, pushing her head under the surface over and over. Seawater flooded her nose and mouth, and the pain felt as though it might tear her in two.
At night, a school of fluorescent fish swam over and began nibbling on Dong Yue’s arms and legs. It felt like needles were pricking her limbs, yet she did not have the energy to shoo them away. Her eyes began closing of their own accord; whenever they did, she quickly forced them open, reminding herself that she must not fall asleep.
When dawn broke, the passengers had been in the water for 20 hours. Whereas an island had been visible in the distance the day before, now the horizon was all sea. Dong Yue’s mouth was full of blisters that bled whenever she took in a breath. She pursed her lips to keep the seawater out of her mouth. To save energy, she urged her mother to speak as little as possible.
Jiangjian’s condition had deteriorated sharply. He could no longer prevent water from entering his mouth, and he began vomiting. He thrashed amid the other passengers, soon expending all his energy. He was the first to die. His son, too, seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness, at one point floating away from the group. Dong Yue swam over and dragged him back, placing him next to her so she could keep an eye on him.
When Abhsoy Kassim, one of the boatmen, noticed that his two fellow crew members had disappeared, he panicked, only to learn from those around him that they had swum off to get help. Kassim, who Dong Yue recalls appeared to be “in despair,” began thrashing about just as Jiangjian had, before taking off his life jacket and succumbing to the ocean.
A few hours later, a vacant look had crept over Dong Mei’s face. Dong Yue could sense that something was wrong; her mother’s head kept sinking beneath the surface, and her lips had turned dark blue. She propped her mother’s head on her shoulder and whispered in her ear all the things she had ever wanted to say. Finally, she asked, “Can you hold on just a little longer?” Her mother replied with a single word: “OK.” She neither opened her eyes nor spoke ever again.
Three other passengers decided to fight death with everything they had. They swam with all their remaining energy to a spot where vessels had been passing. Everyone else waited where they were. At some point in the afternoon, after the three of them had been floating in the current for some time, a fishing boat appeared. They shouted for help and were spotted by a fisherman who happened to be taking a bathroom break at the ship’s stern.
Once on deck, they directed the fishermen to the rest of the group. They lowered a rope into the water and pulled the remaining passengers — including three dead bodies — one by one onto the ship. After 32 hours at sea, 20 people had survived. After being pulled to safety, Dong Yue burst into tears, saying that her mother was no longer with them. Another tourist asked the fishing boat’s captain to circle back. But the sky was growing dark. They never found Dong Mei.
It was close to 2 a.m. by the time the boat arrived in Sabah. The shore had already been cordoned off with police tape, and officers began asking the survivors for their personal information. Dong Yue was sent to the hospital, escorted by a police car. She lay on a bed under the bright lights of the emergency room, fluids pumping into her body and tears flowing from her eyes.
The next day, she was transferred to a ward on the sixth floor. In the bathroom mirror, she finally saw herself: Her face was charred black from the sun, her arms were severely swollen, and pus oozed from sores all over her body. But she felt no fear. “Surviving was more important than anything else,” she says. Doctors diagnosed her with first-degree burns.
That evening, a call from a foreign number appeared on Cao’s cellphone. It was his daughter. Dong Yue did not have the heart to tell her father the bad news, and said that she and her mother were safe. Hearing her voice put Cao’s mind at ease. Only later that night, when he turned on the TV and watched the news, did he learn that his wife had died.
Police assist Chinese tourists rescued after their boat sank off the coast of Borneo at a port in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia, Jan. 30, 2017. STR/VCG
The next day, Cao boarded a 4 a.m. flight to Malaysia and found his daughter at Kota Kinabalu’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Dong Yue was relieved to see her father. The two didn’t talk much — Cao only wanted to know whether his wife was at peace when she passed.
In the Malaysian hospital, a psychotherapist asked Dong Yue: “How many were in your party when you set off?” “My mother and I,” Dong Yue replied. “Where is your mother now?” the therapist continued. “My mother is dead,” said Dong Yue. “After she died, someone took off her life jacket, so now she’s at the bottom of the ocean.” The person who removed her mother’s life jacket, said Dong Yue, was Yan, with whom she had shared a life preserver.
The psychotherapist wanted her and Yan to shake hands and reconcile, but Dong Yue was distraught and refused the suggestion. As Dong Yue recalls, it was only one or two hours after her mother’s life jacket was unfastened that they were saved by the fishing vessel. She believes that she would have been able to bring her mother’s body ashore.
Recalling the events today, Yan tells The Paper that his daughter’s life jacket was broken, and that there was no more room for anyone else to hang on to the life preserver. He saw that there was a perfectly good life jacket on the body beside him, so he took it off and gave it to his daughter. Yan admits that this wasn’t fair to Dong Yue, but at the time, he had no other choice. Yet what Dong Yue cannot forgive is the fact that the Yan family never apologized to her. Cao has tried to understand Yan’s actions that day but still can’t find it in himself to forgive the man.
Rescue personnel and medics assist accident survivors lying on stretchers at a jetty in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia, Jan. 30, 2017. STR/VCG
After being discharged from the hospital, Dong Yue took a photo while walking along the Kota Kinabalu seashore with her father at sunset, and she remembers wondering how a place so beautiful could take her mother away.
The day after Dong Yue was rescued, the two crew members who had swum ashore were arrested by the Sabah police. Dong Yue learned that the pair had, in fact, failed to raise the alarm as soon as they reached the shore, and that the Tanjung Aru jetty was operating illegally. In February 2017, while she was still in Malaysia, Dong Yue and the other survivors testified as witnesses in the case. About a week after the accident, the boat’s captain pled guilty to causing death by negligence and was sentenced to six months in prison.
The case against other parties involved in the accident, including the owner of the boat, is ongoing. Malaysian media reported that, before being used for tours, the boat that sank was a research vessel operated by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). According to a former WWF employee who worked on the design of the boat, it was intended for use in calmer waters and would have been unsuitable for the rough seas around Mengalum Island. It also hadn’t been designed to carry 30 people. A few years ago, the vessel had been repaired after nearly sinking due to a crack in the hull.
The surviving tourists jointly recruited a lawyer to file a lawsuit on their behalf. The lawyer told them that the boat owner had gone bankrupt and that the operators had very little money, so getting compensation in a civil case would be a challenge. The case’s slow progress — and the fact that it’s taking place abroad — worries Cao.
Without warning, Cao was robbed of the chance to say goodbye to his wife. He can’t calmly accept her untimely death, and he blames himself. Dong Mei and Dong Yue had originally planned to visit Hainan, an island province in southern China. But Cao told his wife that it would be too crowded during the lunar new year holiday, and that they should instead choose somewhere in Southeast Asia. Dong Mei agreed, and they finally settled on Malaysia. “If I’d gone along with their plan to travel to Hainan, this whole thing might never have happened,” Cao tells The Paper.
After the accident, Dong Mei’s colleagues held a party to mark her birthday on the lunar calendar, praying for her safe return, Hefei, Anhui province, Feb. 4, 2017. VCG
On Feb. 24, 2017, a memorial for Dong Mei was held at the family home, which was filled with fresh flowers for the occasion. In all, over 200 people came: relatives, friends, and colleagues from Hefei Water, the municipal water supply company where Dong Mei worked. On the day of the memorial, Dong Yue was far too busy to grieve. But the next morning, faced with a new life — one without her mother — she cried her eyes out.
Several days later, Cao arranged a burial for his wife near the family’s old village house, digging a grave for a small cloth doll he had made to represent her. To bid her farewell, they burned the clothes she used to wear.
Today, Dong Yue’s sunburned skin has peeled away, and her face is fair and clear in complexion. The only remaining injuries are a few faint scars on the back of her hands. She’d been living in Shanghai before the accident, but she decided to start fresh back in her childhood home of Hefei, where her mother had always hoped she’d return. “The world can’t stop spinning just because you lost someone,” she says — her way of comforting herself. She believes that staying busy is perhaps the only way to prevent herself from getting lost in memories of her mother.
Still, Dong Yue continues to see Dong Mei in her dreams. In March, she dreamed that her mother was bringing her home from school, but that she was walking very fast. Dong Yue shouted after her, “Don’t go.” But she left anyway. When Dong Yue awoke, she wrote on social media: “Death can’t tear us apart. I’ll never forget.”
Cao, meanwhile, can’t bring himself to share his feelings with his daughter; he says she, too, needs to “heal her wounds.” Late one night, he found her wide awake, her eyes red and swollen. “She’s recovered from her physical injuries so quickly,” he says. “As for the wounds inside, we can only place our hopes in the comforting hands of time.”
A Chinese version of this article first appeared in Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.
Contributions: Li Dan and Liu Chengshuo; translator: Owen Churchill; editors: Kevin Schoenmakers and Fan Yiying.
(Header image: A young girl perches on a rock in the sea near Kota Kinabalu’s Central Market, Sabah, Malaysia, July 30, 2017. Sanjit Das/Bloomberg/VCG)