Race against time to find survivors on Yangtze River

Zhu Hongmei, 65, had somehow managed to work her way into an air pocket in the capsized cruise ship. She stayed there for 15 or so hours, despite the cold and the currents and the darkness.

She kept her head above water. She did not lose consciousness. And on Tuesday, a rescue diver appeared with scuba equipment to guide her, after just five minutes of instruction, through the murky waters and out of the Yangtze River, back into the light.

The account of that rescue, given during a televised briefing by Chen Shoumin, the commander of the local military district in this remote part of central China, was one of the few moments of triumph after a nautical disaster likely to rate as one of the worst in recent memory.

Beneath a shroud of gray clouds, the air sticky with early summer humidity, divers put on their suits and went one after the other into the waters of the world's third-longest river, hoping to find at least one of the hundreds of missing passengers, many of them retirees, from the Oriental Star. The ship keeled over Monday night in severe weather that the captain and engineer described to investigators as a tornado, state news media reports said.

Besides Ms. Zhu, two others were pulled from the water on Tuesday, the Chinese state news media reported. One was Chen Shuhan, a 21-year-old crew member.

Rescuers carry a survivor from the capsized ship in the Yangtze River, China.
ChinaFotoPress | ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images
Rescuers carry a survivor from the capsized ship in the Yangtze River, China.

The diver who found him, Guan Dong, told a television reporter that he searched three times in the 251-foot-long, four-story ship, which had come to rest upside down, before finding the crewman. "Once I dove in, I found him stuck inside," Mr. Guan said. "It was completely dark, and he was alone."

As of Tuesday evening, when a heavy rain began to fall, only a handful of people were known to have survived the accident. The official Xinhua News Agency lowered the number of people onboard at the time of the capsizing to 456 from 458, and said there were 14 survivors, down from an earlier report of 15.

The agency did not explain why the numbers had changed. As of late Tuesday, 437 were still missing.

Five bodies have been recovered, and many hundreds are probably still inside the vessel. Mr. Chen, the military commander, said that more people might still be alive in the ship and that additional rescuers were on their way to the scene, in Jianli County of Hubei Province.

Qin Jianli, 48, from the nearby village of Xinzhou, said: "Last night around 9:30, the wind began blowing hard, with lots of lightning. It blew so hard it destroyed some homes in my village.

"The wind swirled in a twisting shape." .

The death toll is likely to exceed that of Asia's last such disaster of this magnitude, the sinking of the South Korean ferry Sewol in April 2014, in which 304 people died, most of them high school students. Many of the passengers who boarded the Oriental Star in Nanjing last Thursday for a trip to last 10 or more days were older people on group tours, although there were also children among the passengers, including a 3-year-old.

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Some anxious relatives of the passengers said they had been kept in the dark throughout the ordeal.

The offices of the Xiehe Tourism Agency in Shanghai, where many of the tourists had booked their trips, were closed on Tuesday, with a note taped to the door saying the managers had gone to the site of the accident.

Grieving family members who had shown up at the office were sent by officials to a local petition bureau and told to wait there. Many were angry that the government had not provided them with any information about the accident or a list of possible victims.

"They don't want to tell us anything, and they treat us like we're going to do something bad," said a woman with the surname Chen; she said three of her sisters and two brothers-in-law were believed to have been on the Oriental Star with 14 other members of a tour group. "We just want to know where they are. Our family lost five people."

When a man who appeared to be a higher-ranking official arrived at the bureau, some relatives shouted at him and followed him, demanding answers. Others jostled with staff members at the bureau after they were told not to talk with the news media.

The captain of the Oriental Star, identified as Zhang Shunwen, was pulled alive from the river at 11:50 p.m. Monday, more than two hours after the vessel capsized, The Hubei Daily reported. He and the chief engineer, who was also rescued, were taken into police custody for questioning.

Images released Tuesday afternoon by the state news media showed boats clustered around the capsized vessel and rescue workers on the keel. The muddy water was about 50 feet deep. Rescuers had cut into the ship in an attempt to reach possible survivors.

In the main Jianli hospital, several police officers blocked journalists on Tuesday evening from going to the rooms in which survivors were resting. One officer said survivors had been brought in with multiple fractures. The hospital will send a psychologist to talk to the survivors, he said. Earlier, Premier Li Keqiang had visited the survivors.

The central government ordered all Chinese journalists, except for those from Xinhua and China Central Television, to refrain from going to the scene, some reporters said. The government often issues such orders when unexpected and politically delicate news events take place.

The sinking is the most prominent transportation accident in China since a high-speed train crash near the eastern city of Wenzhou in 2011, in which 40 people died. At the time, ordinary Chinese asked tough questions about which officials should be held responsible.

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Tornadoes are not as common in China as they are in the United States, but the China Meteorological Administration said Tuesday that a tornado had been reported in the area around the time that the ship capsized. Wind speeds reached 12 on the Beaufort Scale, which translates to 74 miles per hour, or hurricane strength, for 15 to 20 minutes, the administration said in an emailed response to questions.

Yang Min, who was waiting in Shanghai on Tuesday for news about his parents and his 7-year-old daughter, who were on the ship, said he had called them about 9 p.m. Monday, just minutes before the vessel sank. "They said it was raining, but they didn't say the weather was too bad," Mr. Yang said by telephone.

But Zhang Hui, 43, a tour company employee who survived the disaster, told Xinhua that the ship encountered strong winds and lightning shortly after 9 p.m.

"Raindrops hit the right side of the ship, and many cabins had water come in," he said. "Even with the windows closed the water seeped in."

Twenty minutes later, as passengers were busy dragging wet bedding and electrical devices from their berths, the ship tilted violently. "We've got a big problem," he said he told a colleague. Mr. Zhang said he grabbed a life vest that kept him afloat as wave after wave crashed over him. "I told myself, 'Just keep going.' "

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Satellite data on a Chinese website under the Ministry of Transportation showed that the Oriental Star made a sharp change in direction during its final minutes afloat, going downstream rather than upstream for more than five minutes. It traveled about 1,300 feet, or more than five times the length of the ship, before the last fix on the ship's position was recorded by the website.

The data only plotted the ship's position. It was not clear whether the ship actually turned around on its own power or drifted downstream with the current before losing contact with the satellite.

Alex Moran, 49, an American who worked for several years on ships on the Yangtze as a cruise director, said captains on the river had wide discretion on when and where to stop.

"The only reason you sail through a storm is because you have to, or really want to," Mr. Moran wrote in an email from the Philippines, where he now lives. "I was always fighting with my captains and crews about this. I want the sailing schedule that is best for my guests. The captain wants what's best for him and/or the crew, and he has the keys."

The ship was built in February 1994 and was capable of carrying 534 people, Xinhua reported. It belongs to the Chongqing Oriental Ferry Company, which is state-owned and deeply in debt. Last year the company reported assets of about $14.5 million and liabilities of $29.8 million, according to records filed with the government.