China relatives gather as more bodies pulled from capsized ship

AFP , Thursday 4 Jun 2015

Chinese ship
Relatives of passengers on the ship that sank at Jianli section of Yangtze River in Hubei province, cry as they wait for news at an arranged hotel, in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China, June 2, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

Distraught relatives rushed to the site of a capsized cruise ship in China Thursday seeking news of their loved ones, as rescue workers pulled dozens of bodies from the vessel.

State broadcaster CCTV said 65 people were confirmed dead after the "Eastern Star" overturned on the Yangtze river in a storm on Monday evening, with hundreds of elderly tourists on board.

Just 14 people have been found alive, some hidden in air pockets, and rescue workers started cutting into the hull of the capsized ship overnight in a last-ditch attempt to find any other survivors trapped inside.

But fears are mounting that the disaster could be China's worst shipping accident in almost 70 years, as CCTV said on its microblog that some 39 dead bodies had been recovered Thursday.

Work on the perilous operation to cut into the hull was suspended early Thursday due to persistent bad weather that has hampered the rescue effort from the start, state media said.

Three large cranes were moved into place as workers prepared to lift the 76.5 metre long (250 feet) vessel later in another delicate and risky operation that risks destabilising the wreck and sending it further down the fast-flowing Yangtze.

"If after 72 hours no sign of life is detected, then the boat can be turned over," rescue commander Wang Zhigang told the official Xinhua news agency.

The Eastern Star was carrying 456 people, most aged over 60, on a popular tourist route from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing when it sank in a matter of seconds.

Weather officials said a small but fast-moving tornado was in the area at the time.

In case bodies have floated downstream, authorities have expanded the search area to include areas around Wuhan, 220 kilometres (136 miles) further along China's longest river.

Information about the sinking, and media access to the site, has been tightly controlled and the official death toll remains at 26.

The vessel was cited for safety infractions two years ago, according to a notice by the Nanjing Maritime Bureau, which gave no further details.

Hundreds of family members, frustrated by the lack of news, converged on the disaster site in Jinlai county, Hubei province, in the hope of finding out more about their loved ones.

Some 300 relatives travelled across the country to Jianli, according to a woman working at a government centre set up for family members, with another 200 expected in coming days.

"There are more who did not register with us, but we do not know how many," she told AFP on Thursday.

Hotels across Jianli were reserving rooms while authorities have beefed up security at areas where they were expected to congregate, such as the riverbank and the town's funeral parlour.

Authorities have limited official access for foreign journalists to brief trips along the river, and roadblocks are sited about two kilometres (1.2 miles) from the capsized vessel.

China's tightly controlled media has mostly been limited to reproducing official coverage focusing on rescue efforts and China's Premier Li Keqiang, who is at the site.

Frustration over the information drought, and dimming hopes for anyone being found alive, boiled over on Wednesday in Shanghai, where relatives of missing passengers clashed with police and demanded to be taken to the disaster site.

A video shared on social media showed pushing and shoving between police and angry relatives outside a local government building in China's commercial hub, where many of the passengers hailed from.

Torrential rain has been lashing the site in China's central Hubei province, and the swift-flowing and murky brown waters of the Yangtze are also proving a huge challenge for rescue divers searching the boat room-by-room.

"Due to factors including the recent wide-ranging rainfall, it was exceptionally hard for the divers every time they submerged," transport ministry spokesman Xu Chengguang told reporters Wednesday.

"Every dive was a grope in the dark."

Divers have attached steel cables to the hull to support the body of the boat while rescuers search inside, Xinhua quoted a naval engineer as saying.

One diver, Guan Dong, helped rescue a woman in her 60s who had taken refuge in an air pocket.

"She was holding on to a pipe in the compartment with her left hand and using a torch in her right hand," he said.

"She burst into tears immediately when she saw me."

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