Two hours after the Eastern Star capsized in the Yangtze River on Monday, its captain, Zhang Shunwen, and his chief engineer were rescued by a patrol ship.[Special coverage]
Police detained Zhang for questioning, and more than three days after the accident, an investigation into the cause continues.
After an outpouring of public grief over the hundreds of lives apparently lost, attention has now focused on the captain, who has 35 years' sailing experience, and whether he made the right decisions after the ship capsized.
"It happened suddenly. If the captain had no chance to make rescue efforts, he had no choice but to abandon ship and escape," said Feng Haiming, a senior executive at Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp, which operates the Eastern Star. Feng made his comments in an interview with The Paper, a news website in Shanghai.
Feng and other senior executives at the company responded late on Wednesday to the question of whether the captain had abandoned ship.
"The Eastern Star has a captain, three mates and three helmsmen. Under normal sailing conditions, the helmsmen navigate the ship and the captain oversees all operations. The captain and the chief engineer don't go to bed before midnight," Feng said.
He added that the captain and the chief engineer might have been on the bridge when the ship capsized, and he suspected that they were both thrown from the cabin.
Chen Yilong, a senior executive and captain of the company's Eastern Prince, said he thinks it is unlikely that Zhang abandoned ship. "After all, he has the basic professional ethics."
Zhang, 52, is regarded as a good captain. He received an "outstanding employee" award from the company last year and was commended by the national maritime transportation authority for getting an ailing 78-year-old passenger to the shore quickly in April 2012.
The son of a former shipping captain at the company, he trained at a shipping school in 1984 and became a helmsman the following year. He attained the rank of seaman before being appointed captain of the Eastern Star about seven years ago.
The whereabouts of Zhang's wife, who also works on the Eastern Star, are unknown.