[Updated] Cruise Ship Rescue Continues, but Hope Dwindles

Published Jun 3, 2015 10:41 PM by The Maritime Executive

The death toll from a ship that capsized on China's Yangtze River has risen to 65, state television reported on Thursday, but more than 370 people were still missing.

"Life is greater than the heavens, and the burden on your shoulders is massive, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told a group of military divers coordinating the Eastern Star cruise ship rescue operations.

Rescuers, including 180 navy divers and 100 rescue boats, scoured the search area through the night Tuesday in hopes of finding more than 400 missing people, mostly thought to be elderly. The rescue efforts have been complicated by heavy rains and fast currents. There is also the fear that rashly cutting holes in the hull could burst air pockets keeping people alive.

"Although there's lots of work to do, saving people is still being put first," Transport Ministry spokesman Xu Chengguang told reporters.

Only 14 people, including the ship's captain, have been found alive since the ship capsized in a freak tornado on Monday night with 456 people on board. Just 29 bodies have been recovered.

The Hubei military region commander said on state broadcaster CCTV that "We will do everything we can to rescue everyone trapped in there, no matter if they're still alive or not and we will treat them as our own families.”

Local officials in Nanjing have setup a command center in a hotel where victim’s families can await news on their missing family members. But some relatives were already bracing for the worst.

"Yesterday I still had some hope. The boat is big and the water hadn't gone all the way in. Now, it's been more than 40 hours. I ask you, what do I have left?" said Wang Feng, a 35-year-old wedding photographer whose father was on the ship.

In the early hours of Thursday, the deputy police chief of Jiangsu province, where Nanjing is the capital, told the relatives they could go to the disaster site only in the daytime.

He promised to arrange buses for them to view the boat in the morning, adding that journalists were barred from going.

The ship was on an 11-day voyage upstream from the city of Nanjing, near Shanghai, to Chongqing when it sunk.

While the People's Daily said the ship passed inspections by authorities in Chongqing last month, in 2013 it was investigated and held by authorities due to defects, according to documents from a local maritime watchdog.

The Nanjing Maritime Safety Administration investigated Eastern Star as part of a safety campaign into passenger ferries and tour boats and held the ship along with five other vessels, according to three documents on the bureau's website. The documents did not give details on the nature of the defects but said the issues were reported to the Chongqing maritime safety bureau.

The search area has been expanded up to 220 km (135 miles) downstream, state television said, suggesting that bodies could have been swept far away from where the ship foundered.

The death toll in the Eastern Star disaster may surpass the infamous 2014 sinking of the Sewol Ferry, in which over 300 people – mostly children- died.