Hundreds of divers have spent the night searching for more than 400 people still missing after a ship capsized in China’s Yangtze River during a freak tornado. Fourteen bodies have been recovered so far, and only 14 people have been found alive out of the 456 who were on board.
The Eastern Star was on a 900 mile trip from the eastern city of Nanjing to Chongqing in the south-west when it overturned in stormy weather. It could be China’s deadliest maritime accident in decades. State media reported that rescuers heard people yelling for help from inside the overturned hull.
Rescuers could support the ship with a giant crane while they cut into portions of the hull, CCTV reported. Access to the site was blocked by police and paramilitary troops stationed along the river embankment. Hubei military region commander Chen Shoumin said: “We will do everything we can to rescue everyone trapped in there, no matter they’re still alive or not, and we will treat them as our own families.”
Survivors included the ship’s captain and chief engineer, both of whom have been taken into police custody, CCTV said. Relatives who gathered in Shanghai, where many of the tourists started their journey by bus, questioned whether the captain did enough to keep passengers safe.
They demanded answers from local officials in unruly scenes that caused the police to get involved. The official Xinhua news agency quoted the captain and chief engineer as saying the ship sank quickly, while the Communist Party-run People’s Daily said the ship sank within two minutes.
The 43-year-old said he drifted in the Yangtze all night despite not being able to swim, reaching shore as dawn approached. Some of the survivors managed to swim ashore, but others were rescued after search teams climbed on the upside-down hull. Mr Chen said thirteen navy divers were at the scene and 170 more will join them.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited the site of the accident, and later demanded an “overnight battle”, urging divers to keep combing ship compartments for more miracles, Xinhua reported. The overturned ship had drifted about two miles (three kilometres) downstream before coming to rest close to shore.
A passenger manifest carried by state media showed those on board ranged in age from three to more than 80.