Hundreds still missing after Yangtze cruise ship sinks

AFP , Tuesday 2 Jun 2015

Chinese ship
Rescue workers work on a sunken ship in the Jianli section of Yangtze River, Hubei province, China, June 2, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

Rescuers cut three more people from the wreckage of a capsized Chinese cruise ship Tuesday as workers battled to find more than 400 people still missing after the boat sank in the storm-tossed Yangtze river.

A total of 15 people have so far been saved from the Dongfangzhixing, or "Eastern Star," which went down late Monday on the popular tourist route from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Six bodies have also been recovered from the wreckage, but hundreds more are still missing after the passenger ship apparently sank in a matter of seconds with 458 people on board, state media said.

State broadcaster CCTV showed rescue workers carrying an elderly woman on a stretcher who was covering her own face. Xinhua said a 65-year-old woman was pulled from the boat on Tuesday afternoon and CCTV described her as in "good physical condition".

Zhang Hui, a 43-year-old tour guide who was on the boat, described heavy rain flooding into passengers' rooms just after 9:00 pm local time (1300 GMT) on Monday, Xinhua said.

"Rain poured down on the right side of the boat, many rooms were flooded," Zhang said, according to Xinhua. "Even if the windows were shut, water leaked through."

An AFP photographer saw 15 ambulances driving away from the ship as they passed a road block set up about 13 kilometres (8 miles) from the main staging area for emergency crews.

Earlier, 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."

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 are being questioned by authorities, both reportedly said it had been caught in a "cyclone" and sank in less than a minute.

Most passengers on board the cruise liner 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.

State broadcaster CCTV also showed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang looking through binoculars and giving instructions at the scene.

There was heavy rain on the main dual-carriageway road heading south towards the Yangtze River as truckloads of army personal headed towards the disaster site, an AFP correspondent said.

Xinhua said an investigation by the ministry of transport had determined the ship was not overloaded and had a sufficient number of life jackets. All of the rescued were wearing them, it added.

There were 458 people on board the Dongfangzhixing when the ship capsized at 9:28 pm, CCTV said, including 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 boat sent no emergency signal and seven people from the boat swam to shore to raise the alarm after it sank, according to reports.

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 Asia's longest river.

The Southern Metropolis Daily quoted an expert from Changjiang Water Resources Committee saying the committee is considering easing rescue work by controlling the flow of water from the Three Gorges Dam. The water flow will be reduced to 8,000 cubic meters per second instead of more than 10,000 cubic meters per second.

Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier ordered "all-out rescue efforts" to find any survivors.

The Hubei Daily said about 150 boats -- including about 100 fishing vessels -- and more than 3,000 people were involved in the rescue effort. There were 140 frog men were on scene aiding in the search.

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.

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