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.