More than 400 Chinese tourists, many of them thought to be elderly, were still missing late Tuesday after a tour boat sank in the Yangtze River after being hit by a strong storm, possibly a tornado.
Thousands of rescuers worked all day to find survivors, including several reported to be trapped alive in the overturned boat. But 20 hours after the disaster, only 14 to 18 people had been confirmed as safely rescued, with five confirmed dead, according to Hubei province officials and state media.
With a second night falling on the rescue site, the number of dead is certain to rise significantly in what could end up becoming China’s worst maritime disaster since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The boat, the 251-foot-long Eastern Star, was carrying 458 people when it went down – 406 Chinese passengers, five travel agency employees and 47 crew members, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
Two of the rescued included the boat’s captain and chief engineer, who were taken into custody, according to CCTV, for reasons not immediately clear.
Cruising the Yangtze is a popular pastime for foreign and Chinese tourists, with many wanting to see China’s massive Three Gorges Dam and what is left of the gorges that were flooded when the dam was constructed.
The Eastern Star had started its trip Thursday from the eastern city of Nanjing and was traveling to the southwestern city of Chongqing. It sank at about 9:30 p.m. Monday near Jingzhou in Hubei province.
The boat’s captain and its chief engineer reportedly told authorities the ship had been hit by a tornado and had sunk quickly. At least one survivor confirmed that the boat had gone down fast.
“It capsized within a minute,” tour guide Zhang Zhui told China’s Xinhua news service from a hospital bed. Zhang said he survived by jumping through a window of the boat and holding onto debris in the water for several hours.
Government meteorologists confirmed there had been strong thunderstorms in the area, but could not immediately confirm a tornado had formed. Zhang Zuqiang, head of the emergency relief and public service office of China Meteorological Administration, said an expert team was heading to the accident site to evaluate reports of a tornado, according to a report in Caixin, an online Chinese magazine.
According to state media, there was no sign the tour boat was overloaded or had any record of trouble. China News Service reported the ship had been in service for nearly 20 years and could carry up to 534 people. It is one of five vessels operated by the state-owned Chongqing Wanzhou Dongfang Shipping Company.
As news of the sinking spread across China, relatives of those on board scrambled to learn of their loved ones. Chinese TV showed anguish scenes of tearful and exhaused relatives awaiting news in a Nanjing hotel.
Many in Shanghai gathered outside of the closed office of the Shanghai Xiehe Travel Agency, which had reportedly handled reservations for many on board. A sign on the office – which was posted on Twitter and Chinese social media – gave notice that the company’s president had traveled to the accident scene and urged people with questions to contact government authorities.
China News Service interviewed one woman, Cai Bin, who said her 67-year-old mother was on the boat but that she had been unable to find out anything from the travel agency or local officials. “We are very anxious and we still have slim hope in our heart. We need authorities’ response,” CNS reported Cai as saying.
Maritime disasters in Asia are not uncommon, and some of the biggest can have political ramifications. After the MW Sewol ferry sank last year in South Korea, killing 304 passengers, many of them young students, the country’s prime minister, Jong Hong-won, accepted responsibility and resigned.
On Tuesday morning, state media quickly reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping had called for “all-out efforts in rescue work.”
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang quickly arrived at the site and was photographed all day instructing rescue crews on operations. CCTV reported that Li specifically instructed crews to cut into the hull of the overturned boat to find survivors.
Despite such instructions, initial rescue work seemed to go slowly Tuesday, partly because of bad weather and also because of strong currents in the Yangtze. By the afternoon, People’s Daily had reported that three bodies – presumably from the shipwreck – had been found more than 30 miles downstream in Hunan province.
At the upstream Three Gorges Dam, operators held back water to assist in the rescue efforts.
Initial local media reports suggested that as many as 30 people had been successfully rescued, but those numbers were revised later in the day.
Cruising the Yangtze is a relatively inexpensive holiday. On Tuesday, the website of the Shanghai Xiexie travel agency advertised a 13-day cruise up the Yangtze for a basic price of 1,298 yuan, or about $209.
According to People’s Daily, half of those on board the Eastern Star were over 60 years old. One of the women rescued alive Tuesday was 65.
While thunderstorms and tornados are uncommon in northern China, they’ve been known to strike with deadly force in southern sections of the country.
In March 2013, at least 24 people died from a reported tornado and associated thunderstorm that dropped egg-sized hailstones in Guangdong and other provinces. The storm system overturned a ferry in the southeastern province of Fujian, killing at least 11 people, according to state media.
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.