Most of the passengers on the Eastern Star cruise ship had gone to bed. A violent storm struck and rain pounded the windows with such force that water seeped into the cabins, survivor Zhang Hui told Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency.
The ship began tilting, Zhang told the agency, reaching an angle of 45 degrees at one point. Small bottles rolled off the table in his cabin.
“Looks like we are in trouble,” he remembers telling a colleague.
When the ship with more than 458 people aboard overturned late Monday, he said, it happened so quickly he only had 30 seconds to grab a life jacket and get out of his cabin. He went into the dark and choppy waters of the Yangtze River during the middle of the storm, later confirmed to be a tornado.
“The raindrops hitting my face felt like hailstones. I tried to hold my breath, but water was forced into my mouth anyway,” he told Xinhua.
Unable to swim, he hung onto the life jacket as he floated. He heard other voices in the water, but they soon faded. He saw the lights of a boat, but it passed, apparently not hearing his cries.
“Just hang in there a little longer, I told myself,” Zhang said, according to the news agency.
Hours later, around dawn, he floated to shore and crawled to solid ground. He made it to a building, was taken to a hospital and called his family.
“I’m still alive,” he told them, Xinhua said. His wife and 15-year-old son broke down upon hearing his voice, he said.
A massive rescue effort is under way to find anybody who might have survived the capsizing of the Eastern Star. The ship was on a pleasure cruise along a stretch of the Yangtze that winds through central China’s Hubei province, authorities said. Most of the passengers were senior citizens.
Early Wednesday morning local time, Xinhua said 14 people had survived and seven were confirmed dead. Authorities earlier said 15 had survived and didn’t explain why the number changed.
The other passengers and crew were feared trapped inside the ship, CNN’s David McKenzie reported from the scene.
The survivors included the ship’s captain and chief engineer, who were taken into custody for questioning.
Video showed the rescue of an elderly woman who surfaced near the hull wearing a diving mask. Holding a rope, she walked up the hull into the arms of rescuers.
Divers plunged into the river and rescue workers gathered along part of the vessel’s upturned hull that was sticking out of the water.
They used hammers to knock on the body of the ship, which was almost completely submerged, and heard responses from inside, a state-run local newspaper reported. Welders used blowtorches in an attempt to cut the hull open.
More than 1,000 armed police officers, equipped with 40 inflatable boats, were participating in the rescue effort, Xinhua said. Rescue efforts continued into the night.
Images of the upended ship evoked memories of the Sewol, the South Korean passenger ferry that sank last year, taking the lives of more than 300 people, most of them high school students. The captain of that ship was convicted of murder in April and sentenced to life in prison.
In this case, the majority of the 406 passengers on the cruise were between 50 and 80 years old, according to a list published by state media. The youngest was 3.
There were also 47 crew members and five travel agency workers on board, according to state media. All of those on board were reported to be Chinese.
Unless many more people are rescued, the Yangtze River sinking will become the deadliest passenger ship disaster in Asia since the Sewol went down.
Ship capsized during storm
The Eastern Star had been making multiple stops on its journey up the river from Nanjing to Chongqing, a city hundreds of kilometers inland. River cruises along the Yangtze are popular among both Chinese and international tourists.
The Yangtze is the third-longest river in the world, stretching 6,300 kilometers (3,915 miles) from its source in the mountains of Tibet all the way to the East China Sea.
The ship capsized around 9:30 p.m. Monday during a storm over the section of the river that flows through Hubei’s Jianli County, authorities said.
It happened so quickly the captain didn’t have time to send out a distress signal, Wang Yangsheng of the Yueyang Rescue Center told Xinhua. The rescue center received the alarm from the crew of another boat who saw two people in the water.
The captain and the chief engineer both said the ship had been hit by a longjuanfeng, a Chinese word that can be translated as cyclone or tornado, Xinhua reported.
The China Meteorological Center said a tornado less than 1 kilometer in diameter and lasting 15 to 20 minutes occurred, China Daily reported. The storm had wind speeds reaching 12 on the Beaufort scale, which calculates to 64-plus mph, the center reported.
Alarm raised by survivor
Local authorities launched rescue efforts after receiving a phone call from a survivor who managed to swim ashore, according to Chinese media.
The sunken ship is now about 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from the shore, where the river is around 15 meters (50 feet) deep, China’s state-run broadcaster CCTV reported.
Relatives were desperately seeking news.
Yan Mao told CNN that his mother, aunt and two cousins were on the ship after boarding it at Nanjing, the eastern Chinese city where the multiday river cruise began Thursday.
Yan said he was on his way to Wuhan, a major city roughly 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the area where the ship is reported to have gone down.
“I am anxious to find them,” he told CNN. “Of course, I believe they are alive, otherwise I wouldn’t go there.”
Yang Min, a Shanghai resident whose parents and child were on the ship, said he was anxiously waiting with many other families for updates at a local government office in the city.
State-run media showed images of relatives of passengers waiting for information at a makeshift reception center in Fuzhou, the capital of southeast China’s Fujian province. In one photo, a man wept while looking at a cell phone. The caption said that he had recognized his mother was being rescued.
Premier arrives at site
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and other senior officials arrived Tuesday at the site of the disaster to oversee the large-scale emergency response.
To help with the rescue effort, authorities reduced the amount of water being discharged from the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric plant, which is upstream from the sunken ship, state media reported.
More than 4,000 people and 110 vessels have taken part in the search and rescue, Chinese Transport Minister Yang Chuantang said at a news conference. Divers have been called in from all around the country, he said.
A CNN team saw scores of military trucks and buses on an expressway heading toward the site of the sinking. Each one was packed with soldiers wearing orange life vests.
Debate on social media
Chinese social media users weren’t waiting for the results of any official investigation before launching into a debate on whether to blame humans or the bad weather for the disaster.
“What could the captain have done?” asked one top-rated comment in a popular conversation thread on Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog service in China.
But another top-rated comment wanted to know if pre-emptive measures could have been taken: “How could meteorologists not have forecast the weather situation? If they did, why didn’t they notify those in charge of the ship?”
The ship could carry up to 534 people, Xinhua reported. Tickets for the cruise cost between 1,098 yuan ($177) and 2,298 yuan ($370), with each room having air conditioning, a private bathroom and a TV. Passengers visited attractions during the daytime and returned in the evening as the ship traveled to the next port overnight.
China Daily reported the Eastern Star belongs to a state-owned enterprise called Chongqing Eastern Shipping Co., which was registered in 1981.
China’s deadliest passenger ship disaster in recent memory is believed to be the capsizing of the ferry Dashun off the coast of eastern Shandong province in 1999. That sinking killed 282 people, according to authorities.