Hundreds perish in tragedy on Yangtze river

The four-storey ship sank within minutes after being caught in a cyclone on the high seas in China 

Beijing : Hundreds were feared dead today after a cruise ship capsized in Asia’s longest river Yangtze in central China as rescuers braved strong winds and downpour to scan its hulk for survivors among the 458 on board, mostly elderly, in one of the country’s worst shipping tragedies.

Twenty-four hours after the ill-fated Eastern Star overturned due to a freak cyclone, merely five bodies have been retrieved while 15 people were rescued.

The four-storey ship – bound for Chongqing Municipality, southwest China, from the eastern Chinese city Nanjing – sank after being caught in a cyclone at around 9:28 pm on Monday on the Jianli section of the Yangtze River in Hubei Province.

The vessel sank “within one or two minutes” of being caught in bad weather in Jianli, according to the ship’s captain and chief engineer who survived the incident last night. Both have been arrested for questioning. Hopes were rekindled when over 140 divers scoured through the murky waters of the 6,300 km-long Yangtze River and examined various parts of the ship which lay overturned as they managed to rescue three persons by cutting through parts of the hull.

But, overall situation remained grim as hundreds of well- equipped rescue teams headed by Premier Li Keqiang mulled options to cut through the entire hull amid fears that it could cause the vessel to completely sink, leaving little chance to rescue those still trapped inside.

Transport Minister Yang Chuantang said 15 people were rescued and five were confirmed dead in the capsize.

State television showed the overturned hull of the massive ship, measuring 76.5 metres long, 11 metres wide and 3.1 metres deep and could carry up to 534 people, as rescuers were seen trying to hear tapping sounds to locate people caught up in areas where water had not entered.

The cruise ship was carrying 406 Chinese tourists, mostly in the 50 to 80 years age group, five travel agency workers and 47 crew members.

The boat sent no emergency signal, with the alarm reportedly raised by those who had swum to shore. Some media reports said the crew of another vessel alerted authorities after rescuing the captain from the water.

Wang Yangsheng, senior official with the Yueyang Maritime Rescue Centre, said the incident happened, “so fast that the captain did not even have the time to send out a distress signal” after the ship was hit by a high-power cyclone.

Police, maritime authorities and fire departments have dispatched a total of 36 ships to the scene and another 117 boats have joined the massive rescue operation amid fears of an unfolding disaster in the waters of the mighty Yangtze.

More than 1,840 soldiers, 1,600 police and 1,000 civilians have been mobilised but bad weather and rain was hampering rescue efforts. Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered a working team of the State Council to rush to the site to guide search and rescue efforts.

K J M Varma

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