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400 missing in China boat tragedy

Published 02/06/2015

Divers have pulled three people alive from inside a capsized cruise ship in China and are searching for other survivors, state media said.

The rescue gave a small element of hope to an apparently massive tragedy with well over 400 people still missing on the Yangtze River.

Fifteen people have been brought to safety and at least five confirmed dead after the Eastern Star capsized in Hubei Province during a severe storm last night with 458 people aboard, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

The survivors included the ship's captain and chief engineer, both of whom have been taken into police custody, state broadcaster CCTV said.

Relatives who gathered in Shanghai, where many of the travellers started their journey by bus, questioned whether the captain did enough to ensure the safety of passengers and demanded answers from local officials in unruly scenes that drew a heavy police response.

Some of the survivors swam ashore, but others were rescued after search teams climbed aboard the upside-down hull and heard people calling for help from within more than 12 hours after the ship overturned.

Footage showed rescuers in orange life vests climbing on the hull, with one lying down tapping a hammer and listening for a response, then gesturing downward.

Divers pulled out a 65-year-old woman and a man who had been trapped, CCTV said. It said additional survivors had been found and were being rescued.

"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.

The 65-year-old woman was rescued by divers who brought 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, Mr Chen said.

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

Thirteen navy divers are on the scene and will be bolstered by 170 more by tomorrow, he said. Chinese premier Li Keqiang has travelled to the accident site to help coordinate efforts.

The cruise was from Nanjing to the south-west city of Chongqing, and many of those aboard were elderly.

The overturned ship drifted about 3km (almost two miles) downstream before coming to rest close to the river shore, where choppy waters made the rescue difficult.

The drift was a good sign for rescuers because it meant there was enough air inside to give it buoyancy, which could mean there are air pockets for survivors to breathe, said Chi-Mo Park, a professor of naval architecture and ocean engineering at South Korea's Ulsan University.

"It all depends how much space there is inside the vessel," he said.

Xinhua quoted the captain and chief engineer as saying the ship sank quickly after being caught in a cyclone. The Communist Party-run People's Daily said the ship sank within two minutes.

CCTV said the four-level ship had been carrying 406 Chinese passengers, five travel agency employees and 47 crew members. The broadcaster said most of the passengers were 50 to 80 years of age.

Relatives of passengers gathered in Shanghai at a travel agency that had booked many of the trips, and later headed to a government office to try to get more information.

Huang Yan, 49, an accountant in Shanghai, wept as she said she believes her husband, 49, and his father, in his 70s, were aboard the boat.

"Why did the captain leave the ship while the passengers were still missing?" she shouted. "We want the government to release the name list to see who was on the boat."

A group of about a dozen retired people 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 elder sister and her husband, both 60, and their granddaughter, six.

"This group has travelled together a lot, but only on short trips. This is the first time they travelled for a long trip," she said.

The ship sank in the Damazhou waterway section, where the river is 15 metres (about 50 feet) deep.

Several rescue ships have been searching the waters and divers are deployed. Rescue personnel are said to be trying to determine whether they can right the sunken ship.

More than 50 boats and 3,000 people have been involved in search efforts.

The Eastern Star measured 251 feet long (76.5 metres) and 36 feet wide (11 metres) and was capable of carrying 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.

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