3 Jun 2015

'Race against time' in Yangtze ship rescue

7:28 am on 3 June 2015

China's transport minister says rescuers are in a "race against time" to find survivors among the hundreds missing after a cruise ship capsized in bad weather on the Yangtze River.

A relative of missing passengers who were on a ship which sank in the Yangtze River is interviewed by a journalist.

A relative of missing passengers who were on a ship which sank in the Yangtze River is interviewed by a journalist. Photo: AFP

Thousands of rescuers worked through the night around the upturned hull of the Eastern Star in Hubei province.

Five people are confirmed dead and 15 more have been found alive from a ship that was carrying 456 people.

Frustrated relatives have been venting their anger at the lack of information.

The boat went down at about 21:30 local time on Monday evening. Most of the passengers were elderly Chinese tourists.

The survivors included the captain and chief engineer, both of whom have been taken into police custody.

The captain said the boat was caught in a cyclone and went down in minutes.

'We will not give up'

The upturned hull now lies in about 15m of water in the Damazhou section of the Yangtze.

Transport Minister Yang Chuantang said: "It's a race against time. As long as there's even a little hope, we will give it 100 percent and will absolutely not give up."

Divers carried out at least two remarkable rescues from the upturned vessel on Tuesday, including one of a 65-year-old woman.

Hubei military region commander Chen Shoumin told Chinese television divers had taken breathing apparatus into the ship and spent five minutes showing her how to use it.

"That old woman had a very strong will and learned very fast, and after 20 minutes she surfaced to the water and was rescued," Mr Chen said.

Three divers also found a 21-year-old man in a small compartment. They supplied diving apparatus and he swam out by himself.

Recalling the rescue, diver Guan Dong said: "I swam back and forth three times, and by the third time I felt somebody was up there above me. As soon as I got out of the water,

I noticed the trapped victim. It was pitch dark inside, with just him inside the cabin and nobody else."

Three of the bodies were reportedly recovered in Yueyang, Hunan province, some 50km away.

Mr Chen 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."

One survivor, tour guide Zhang Hui, told the Xinhua state news agency that heavy rain had come through cabin windows and many passengers went into the ship's hall to keep sheets and other items dry.

He said the ship then began to toss violently, to an angle of 45 degrees.

Mr Zhang said he had "30 seconds to grab a life jacket" and tried to hold on to what he could find to keep his head above water as the vessel overturned.

He clambered out of a window in the torrential rain. "Wave after wave crashed over me; I swallowed a lot of water," he said.

Mr Zhang said he heard the cries of at least a dozen other people in the water but after about 30 minutes, they all fell silent and he finally drifted into reeds and was rescued.

Rescue boats can be seen alongside the capsized passenger ship in the Yangtze.

Rescue boats can be seen alongside the capsized passenger ship in the Yangtze. Photo: AFP

Chinese television said 150mm of rain had fallen in the region over the past 24 hours, with reported wind speeds of up to 130 km/h.

The 76m-long, 2,200 tonne Eastern Star - Dongfangzhixing in Chinese - had been carrying 405 Chinese passengers, five travel agency employees and 46 crew members.

The vessel, owned by the Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corporation, was travelling from the eastern city of Nanjing to Chongqing in the south-west - a journey of at least 1,500km.

'I cried all the way'

Relatives on those on board confronted officials in the cities of Shanghai and Nanjing.

Some family members had gone to the Shanghai offices of the tour operator that handles the bookings, Xiehe International Travel, but they were closed.

Wang Sheng, whose mother and father are on board, said: "I cried all the way here and I can't find anyone, the door is locked."

Relatives were then taken to government offices where they became frustrated at the lack of information and scuffles broke out.

Zhang Yingli, 56, whose brother and wife were among the passengers, said: "It's 4:30 now and we haven't heard anything from anyone except the news. No-one has come to reassure us."