China relatives hope for ‘miracle’ in race to find ship survivors
Relatives of more than 400 people missing after a cruise ship capsized on China’s Yangtze river were hoping for a miracle Wednesday as authorities said they were racing against time to find any survivors.
State media said just 14 people have been rescued from the “Eastern Star” which overturned late Monday in a storm, leaving just a section of its hull protruding from the murky waters.
Another 19 bodies have been recovered, state broadcaster CCTV said, leaving hundreds of mostly elderly passengers still missing and possibly trapped within the ship, which witnesses said sank in a matter of seconds.
A total of 456 people had been on board the vessel, which was plying a popular tourist route from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing when it capsized in Jianli county in the central province of Hubei.
The ship has 150 compartments and divers are searching each room one by one, CCTV said, while authorities have expanded the search area to include areas around Wuhan, 220 kilometres (136 miles) downstream.
Engineers are looking at the possibility of cutting open the hull in three places or lifting the vessel into an upright position, the state broadcaster said.
But divers searching for survivors face extremely difficult conditions.
“The river water in the area where the accident happened is quite muddy and there is virtually no visibility,” Zhang Jianxin, vice director of the transport ministry’s rescue department, said on CCTV.
“Divers can only rely on touch while submerging, searching and rescuing.”
Security forces had erected a strict cordon about two kilometres from the rescue site and propaganda officials ordered all Chinese media outlets, except for the official Xinhua news agency and CCTV, to return home.
On Wednesday foreign journalists were allowed to join a tightly organised press tour on a boat that sailed past the ship.
Some 36 hours after the accident, hopes for more survivors are dwindling.
“We are in a race against the clock in the search,” said Transport Minister Yang Chuantang.
“It happened suddenly and the rescue has been quite difficult,” he said Tuesday as driving rain hampered the search. “As long as there is the slightest hope, we will make every effort and never give up.”
Relatives were also refusing to abandon hope.
“I’m hoping for a miracle,” Tan Zhenxing, whose father worked on the boat, told the China Daily newspaper.
– Grim task –
Early investigations showed the area where the ship sank was hit by a small and fast-moving tornado, China’s state meteorological bureau said on its website late Tuesday.
The word used by the bureau can also be translated as “cyclone”, but the account strongly suggested it was a tornado.
The report matches an account given by the captain of the “Eastern Star”, who said earlier the vessel was hit by a “cyclone”.
Rescuers pulled at least three survivors from the wreckage Tuesday after they cut through part of the hull to reach the interior of the vessel, but then worked through the night in vain.
Grim TV images showed what appeared to be a dead woman being pulled from the water, her body already rigid.
Recent heavy rain brought by the storm was complicating rescue efforts.
Fields around the site were badly waterlogged, and many of the pathways used by rescue workers were ankle-deep in mud and rainwater.
Emergency vehicles heading out of a rescue centre set up on the riverside had to pass through deep water.
Passengers seemed to have had little warning before the ship sank. Zhang Hui, a 43-year-old tour guide, told Xinhua he had “30 seconds to grab a life jacket”.
The captain and chief engineer, who were among the survivors and were being questioned by police, both reportedly said the ship was caught in a freak storm.
A local man surnamed Wang told AFP the storm on Monday night was the worst he had seen in years.
CCTV said the 250-foot (76.5-metre) vessel had floated three kilometres down river after it capsized. Local reports said the passengers were mostly aged over 60.
Condolences came from the United States, the European Union and the UN.
In Shanghai, where 97 of the passengers came from, the local government had set up a reception centre for relatives.
On Tuesday the relatives had complained about a lack of information on the fate of their loved ones.
Shanghai had sent government representatives to the accident site, as well as a team of divers and workers with salvage equipment, local media reported.
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