Ship with over 450 on board sinks in China's Yangtze

AFP , Tuesday 2 Jun 2015

Chinese ship
A woman is helped after being pulled out by divers from a sunken ship in Jianli, Hubei province, China, June 2, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

Divers racing to find survivors rescued a 65-year-old woman on Tuesday after a Chinese ship sank with more than 450 mainly elderly people in the storm-tossed Yangtze river, raising hopes more people can be found alive.

She was among 13 people saved so far from the Dongfangzhixing or "Eastern Star" which sank late Monday en route from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing, state broadcaster CCTV said.

Five bodies had been recovered.

Footage showed rescue workers tapping on the ship's hull, part of which remained above water, with some holding welding gear and others ropes.

"Rescuers knocked on the ship and received responses," the Hubei Daily said. "Three people were found alive."

The state-run Xinhua news agency said the woman was pulled from the boat after midday on Tuesday and CCTV described her as in "good physical condition".

President Xi Jinping ordered "all-out rescue efforts" while Premier Li Keqiang had already arrived at the scene, state media said.

Most passengers were aged over 60, according to a manifest cited by the Nanjing-based Oriental Guardian newspaper.

Teams of police worked to get small motorboats in the water to search for survivors in heavy rain, while other emergency personnel looked on from the shore.

CCTV said the 250-feet (76.5-metre) long vessel had floated three kilometres (1.9 miles) down river after it capsized in the Jianli region of the central province of Hubei.

The cause of the sinking was not immediately clear. The captain and chief engineer, who were among those rescued and are being questioned by authorities, both reportedly said it had been caught in a "cyclone" and sank within a minute.

There were 458 people on board when the ship capsized at 9:28 pm (1328 GMT), CCTV said -- 406 Chinese passengers, five travel agency workers and 47 crew members.

The vessel was owned by a firm that operates tours in the scenic Three Gorges dam region, some distance from the accident site.

The ship started operations in 1993 and would be retired in three years to meet regulations, the 21st Century Business Herald quoted an unnamed former senior executive with the Chongqing Eastern Ship Company as saying

The accident occurred in the middle reaches of the Yangtze, which at 6,300 kilometres is China's longest river.

The transport ministry and other departments were told to throw all available resources into the rescue.

China's Communist Party leaders are sensitive to the handling of disasters as any missteps or delays can lead to criticism of their effectiveness to govern.

The Hubei Daily said about 150 boats -- including about 100 fishing vessels -- and more than 3,000 people were involved in the rescue effort.

CCTV reported that seven people from the boat swam to shore to raise the alarm after the accident.

Relatives of the passengers have started to clamour for information outside the Chongqing Eastern Ship Company in Chongqing, which owns the boat.

In Shanghai, Wang Yiping said her father was on the boat and that relatives had gathered at a district government office with several dozen other relatives of passengers.

"He went on the trip with his friend," Wang said, sobbing. "He left on May 28. When he had time, he would go out to travel with a bunch of friends."

Her mother was not in good health so did not go on the trip.

Pictures on social media showed crying relatives outside the office of a Shanghai tour operator which had booked passengers on the boat.

Reaction to the sinking was the leading topic on Chinese social media, with many users on Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, expressing hope for survivors after the rescue of the elderly woman.

"This shows that there is still a chance of finding more survivors," read one post. "I hope those trapped can hold on."

Another user called for calm and said that blame should not be assigned too hastily.

"At this moment, the captain is automatically held accountable by some people," the post said.

"But the ship sank within two minutes, it's an instinctive reaction for the captain to save himself. Just hope more people will be rescued and the weather monitoring system to be improved."

China's high-speed trains and air networks are the backbone of national transportation. But recent maritime accidents include the January sinking of a tugboat on the river between the eastern cities of Jingjiang and Zhangjiagang, which killed 22 people, including eight foreigners.

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