JIANLI, China (AP) — Hopes dimmed Wednesday for rescuing more than 400 people still trapped in a capsized river cruise ship that overturned in stormy weather, as hundreds of rescuers searched the Yangtze River site in what could become the deadliest Chinese maritime accident in decades.
Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported that 18 bodies had been pulled from the boat, which was floating with a sliver of its hull jutting from the grey river water about 36 hours after it capsized. A total of fourteen people have been rescued, but the vast majority of the 456 people on board, many of them elderly tourists, were unaccounted for.
The shallow-draft, multi-decked Eastern Star was traveling upstream Monday night from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing when it overturned in China’s Hubei Province in what state media reported as a cyclone with winds of up to 80 mph (130 kph).
State media reported that rescuers heard people yelling for help within the overturned hull, and divers on Tuesday rescued a 65-year-old woman and, later, two men who had been trapped. CCTV said more people had been found and were being rescued, but did not say whether they were still inside the overturned hull.
The yelling was heard Tuesday, and it is not known if any sounds were heard Wednesday. CCTV said rescuers would possibly support the ship with a giant crane while they cut into portions of the hull.
Thirteen navy divers searched the boat Tuesday, and military authorities said an additional 170 would arrive by Wednesday to vastly expand the pace of those efforts.
Access to the site of the site was blocked by police and paramilitary troops stationed along the Yangtze river embankment. Scores of trucks belonging to the People’s Armed Police were parked along the verge and at least two ambulances were seeing leaving the area with their lights on and sirens blaring.
Huang Delong, a deck hand on a car ferry crossing the Yangtze several kilometers (miles) upstream of the site, said he was working Monday evening when the weather turned nasty.
“From about 9 p.m. it began raining extremely hard, then the cyclone hit and the wind was really terrifying,” Huang said while crossing the broad river in a steady drizzle Tuesday afternoon.
Huang said he thought it was the worst disaster on that stretch of the river — the world’s third-longest river — in living memory. The official Xinhua News Agency said the sinking could become the country’s worst shipping accident in seven decades.
“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,” Hubei military region commander Chen Shoumin said at a news conference shown live on CCTV.
The survivors included the ship’s captain and chief engineer, both of whom were 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 ensure the passengers’ safety and demanded answers from local officials in unruly scenes that drew a heavy police response.
Xinhua quoted the captain and the chief engineer as saying the four-level Eastern Star sank quickly. The Communist Party-run People’s Daily said the ship sank within two minutes. The overturned ship then drifted about 3 kilometers (almost 2 miles) downstream before coming to rest close to shore.
State media originally said there were 458 people on board, but CCTV said Wednesday it had been carrying 405 Chinese passengers, five travel agency employees and a crew of 46. The broadcaster said most of the passengers were 50 to 80 years old.
Tour guide Zhang Hui said in an interview with the state-run Xinhua News Agency from his hospital bed that he grabbed a life jacket with seconds to spare as the ship listed in the storm, sending bottles rolling off tables and suddenly turned all the way over.
Zhang, 43, said he drifted in the Yangtze all night despite not being able to swim, reaching shore as dawn approached.
“The raindrops hitting my face felt like hailstones,” he said. “‘Just hang in there a little longer,’ I told myself.”
Some survivors swam ashore, but others were rescued after search teams climbed on the upside-down hull.
The 65-year-old woman was rescued by divers who took an extra breathing apparatus up into the bowels of the ship and spent about five minutes teaching her how to use it before bringing her out to safety, Chen said.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang traveled to the accident site about 180 kilometers (110 miles) west of the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan.
Passengers’ relatives gathered in Shanghai at a travel agency that had booked many of the trips, and later went to a government office to demand more information about the accident before police broke up the gatherings.
A group of about a dozen retirees from a Shanghai bus company were on the trip, said a woman who identified herself only by her surname, Chen. Among them, she said, were her older sister and brother-in-law, both 60, and their 6-year-old granddaughter.
“This group has traveled together a lot, but only on short trips. This is the first time they traveled for a long trip,” Chen said.
The Eastern Star was 251 feet (76.5 meters) long and 36 feet (11 meters) wide, and could carry a maximum of 534 people, CCTV reported. It is owned by the Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp., which focuses on tourism routes in the popular Three Gorges river canyon region. The company could not be reached for comment.
Associated Press writers Jack Chang and Ian Mader and news assistant Yu Bing in Beijing, and news assistant Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report.
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