Hundreds were feared dead on Tuesday after a cruise ship capsized in Asia's longest river Yangtze in central China as rescuers braved strong winds and downpour to scan its hulk for survivors among the 458 on board, mostly elderly, in one of the country's worst shipping tragedies.
Twenty-four hours after the ill-fated Eastern Star overturned due to a freak cyclone, merely five bodies have been retrieved while 14 people were rescued.
The four-storey ship -- bound for Chongqing Municipality, southwest China, from the eastern Chinese city Nanjing -- sank after being caught in a cyclone at around 9:28 pm on Monday on the Jianli section of the Yangtze River in Hubei Province.
The vessel sank ‘within one or two minutes’ of being caught in bad weather in Jianli, according to the ship's captain and chief engineer who survived the incident on Monday night. Both have been arrested for questioning.
Hopes were rekindled when over 140 divers scoured through the murky waters of the 6,300 km-long Yangtze River and examined various parts of the ship which lay overturned as they managed to rescue three persons by cutting through parts of the hull.
But, overall situation remained grim as hundreds of well-equipped rescue teams headed by Premier Li Keqiang mulled options to cut through the entire hull amid fears that it could cause the vessel to completely sink, leaving little chance to rescue those still trapped inside.
Transport Minister Yang Chuantang said 15 people were rescued and five were confirmed dead in the capsize. State television showed the overturned hull of the massive ship, measuring 76.5 metres long, 11 metres wide and 3.1 metres deep and could carry up to 534 people, as rescuers were seen trying to hear tapping sounds to locate people caught up in areas where water had not entered.
The cruise ship was carrying 406 Chinese tourists, mostly in the 50 to 80 years age group, five travel agency workers and 47 crew members. The boat sent no emergency signal, with the alarm reportedly raised by those who had swum to shore.
Some media reports said the crew of another vessel alerted authorities after rescuing the captain from the water.
Wang Yangsheng, senior official with the Yueyang Maritime Rescue Centre, said the incident happened, "So fast that the captain did not even have the time to send out a distress signal" after the ship was hit by a high-power cyclone.
The police, maritime authorities and fire departments have dispatched a total of 36 ships to the scene and another 117 boats have joined the massive rescue operation amid fears of an unfolding disaster in the waters of the mighty Yangtze.
More than 1,840 soldiers, 1,600 police and 1,000 civilians have been mobilised but bad weather and rain was hampering rescue efforts.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered a working team of the State Council to rush to the site to guide search and rescue efforts, following which Premier Li rushed to the area and ordered the rescue teams to start pumping oxygen into the hull after the tapping sounds were heard.
Three survivors, aged 37, 42 and 50 respectively were being treated at a Hubei hospital, state-run Xinhua news agency reported. Three divers found a 21-year-old man in a small compartment in the afternoon and was given diving apparatus following which he was able to swim out by himself.
The divers said rescue efforts have been complicated by the intricate layout of the vessel besides strong wind and heavy rain. The ship was overturned ‘by strong winds on a scale of 12 (upto 130 km per hour) when cruising at the Jianli section’, a local newspaper quoted MeT department officials as saying.
The ship had been in service for nearly 20 years and is one of five luxury vessels operated by the state-owned Chongqing Wanzhou Dongfang Shipping Company. Waterways officials in Chongqing have no record of company involvement in any previous sinking.
Those rescued included 65-year-old and 85-year-old women. One rescue official said there is little chance of any survivor but the operation would continue until the divers mangers to get into the body of the ship.
Heart-rendering scenes prevailed at the Xiehe Travel office in Shanghai which organised the tour. Dozens of relatives became furious after finding the office closed. They complained that no information was being provided.
The public is baffled as to how a big boat such as the Eastern Star could sink so quickly. Bad weather is possibly to blame, and similar accidents have been reported in the Yangtze estuary and on the Pearl River in south China, said Cai Cunqiang, a shipping expert with ShanghaiMaritimeUniversity.
"It is rainy season along the Yangtze River, which often features thunderstorms," Cai said. "In such circumstances, a tornado could blow up and sink a cruise ship within minutes."
The China Meteorological Administration found that a tornado appeared on Monday night on the section of the Yangtze River where the accident happened.
Meteorologist Dou Xinying said tornados were hard to predict and if one struck, there would be very little time to evacuate the ship. "A vessel such as the Eastern Star has a big hull, making it susceptible to strong winds," Duo said. While rescue work continues, netizens showed solidarity with the grieving relatives and joined them in prayers for the victims.
"My heart is broken," commented one Weibo user. "Please stay strong my friends, we are waiting for your safe return."