More than a year after an Iranian oil tanker sank in the East China Sea, reportedly killing all aboard, the families of the Iranian victims say they’ve been receiving mysterious telephone calls from their supposedly dead relatives that are abruptly cut off.
On January 6, 2018, an Iranian oil tanker flying a Panamanian flag called the Sanchi and a Hong Kong-registered Chinese freighter called the CF Crystal collided 160 miles east of Shanghai.
Immediately after the collision, Chinese rescuers boarded the Sanchi and recovered two bodies, but then a large explosion shook the ship and it sank within hours. High temperatures prevented rescuers from entering the crew quarters before the explosion, Chinese firefighters said, adding that all 21 crew members aboard the Chinese freighter were safe.
The Sanchi was carrying 136,000 tonnes (960,000 barrels) of natural-gas condensate, sailing from Asaluyeh, Iran, to South Korea, when it collided with the Chinese freighter 160 nautical miles (300 km) off Shanghai, China.
While all crew members of the Sanchi were declared dead, many of their relatives say their loved ones have attempted to contacted them in recent days through repeated telephone calls, spreading doubt among the families about the official story about the disaster.
About thirty of the families have been protesting in front of Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, President Hassan Rouhani’s office, and the Chinese embassy in Tehran in the last few days.
Speaking to pro-reformist daily Sharq, the relatives of the victims say they have totally lost trust in the Islamic Republic's authorities and are demanding a full and transparent investigation into the disaster.
Two other major dailies, Hamshahri and Jam-e Jam, have also covered the story, reporting that some of the families theorize their relative may have been taken hostage for some reason.
"From the very beginning we announced that we do not believe in the reports concerning the disaster compiled by the Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) and Ports&Maritime Organization (PMO)," a relative of one of the victims, Abdollah Abdollahi, told Sharq. “They never allowed us to attend any sessions of the investigations. They just said we don’t have the right.”
Marzieh Hosseini, the mother of one of the victims, has gone even further by saying, "Even if they deliver a body, I will doubt it is my son's. I even do not believe in the DNA evidence presented by the authorities. I have no confidence in them."
Noushin Najafifar, the sister of one of the Sanchi crew, insists her brother has been calling her morning, noon, and night. Most of the calls end quickly and abruptly. Other relatives claim similar experiences.
"As soon as the abrupt calls were disconnected, we used to call back, and an Arabic speaking guy answered the phone," Ms. Najafifar told Sharq, adding that she has repeatedly reported the calls to the president's office.
Meanwhile, the mother of one of the Sanchi victims, who has kept her identity secret for the sake of her son's safety, told Sharq that her daughter-in-law has had fifty miss calls within a month, she presumes from her son.
"We returned tried to return the calls but were disconnected after a single ring,” she said. “Nevertheless, we tried and tried, and ultimately a woman who spoke Persian mixed with English words answered the phone, telling us that there was someone around attempting to communicate with his family. Then the line was disconnected and we never succeed to get through again."
One of the victims' wives, Tahreh Mir Nassiri, who has been participating in the protests, says, “Whenever we say or loved ones are still alive, the authorities demand evidence to prove our claim; but, we fire back, asking them where is their evidence showing that all crew members of the Sanchi are dead?"
The chairman of the government committee formed to investigate the Sanchi disaster, Mohammad Mehdi Boroumandi, has categorically denied the families’ allegations.
"The claims about telephone calls and the Sanchi crew being taken hostage are totally unfounded and based on hearsay," Boroumandi told the state-run Iran Students News Agency (ISNA) January 31.
In the meantime, MP Mohammad Reza Kouchi says that he has asked intelligence experts to step in and punish those who are disturbing the victims’ families with these hoax phone calls.