Chinese rescuers on Tuesday searched for hundreds missing after a passenger ship carrying more than 450 people capsized in the storm-hit Yangtze river, with several survivors reportedly confirmed trapped in the upturned hull.
State broadcaster CCTV said five bodies had been recovered and 12 people rescued from the Dongfangzhixing, or “Eastern Star” which sank late Monday en route from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing.
Footage showed rescue workers tapping on the ship’s hull, part of which remained above water, with some holding welding gear.
“Rescuers knocked on the ship and received responses,” the Hubei Daily said. “Three people were found alive.”
Teams of police worked to get small motor boats in the water in order to search for survivors in heavy rain, while other emergency personnel looked on from the shore.
CCTV said the 250-feet (76.5-metre) long vessel had floated three kilometres (1.9 miles) down river after it capsized in the Jianli region of central Hubei province.
The cause of the sinking was not immediately clear, but the captain and chief engineer, who were among those rescued and are being questioned by authorities, both reportedly said it had been caught in a “cyclone”.
There were 458 people on board when the ship capsized at 9:28 pm (1328 GMT), CCTV said, including 406 Chinese passengers, five travel agency workers and 47 crew members.
The Hubei Daily quoted an official with the Yangtze maritime affairs administration as saying that one group of passengers sent by a tourism agency in Shanghai were aged between 50 and 80 years.
The vessel was owned by a firm that operates tours in the scenic Three Gorges dam region, which is some distance from the accident site.
The accident occurred in the middle reaches of the Yangtze, which at 6,300 kilometres is China’s longest.
State news agency Xinhua said China’s President Xi Jinping issued an order for “all out rescue efforts” while Premier Li Keqiang deployed a work team from the State Council, China’s cabinet, to direct the search and rescue work.
The report added that the transport ministry and other departments were told to throw all available resources into the rescue.
CCTV said that Li had already arrived at the scene on Tuesday.
China’s Communist Party leaders are sensitive to the handling of disasters as any missteps or delays can lead to criticism of their effectiveness to govern.
The Hubei Daily said that about 150 boats — including about 100 fishing vessels — and more than 3,000 people were involved in the rescue effort.
Relatives of the passengers have started to clamour for information outside the boat operator’s office.
“Family members are waiting for information now, there are many of them,” said a female employee at the Chongqing Eastern Ship Company, who declined to give her name.
“Currently company leaders are at the site organising the rescue, we don’t know the situation. We are just waiting, waiting, comforting relatives of those on board, and waiting,” she told AFP.
Pictures on social media showed crying relatives outside the office of a Shanghai tour operator which had sent passengers on the boat.
Reaction to the sinking was relatively muted on Chinese social media, though some critical voices emerged on Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter.
“When the South Korean ship sank, it was on TV 24 hours a day,” said one user, referring to the Sewol ferry disaster in April last year that left 304 people dead including 250 pupils from the same high school.
Another user called for calm and said that blame should not be assigned too hastily.
“At this moment, the captain is automatically held accountable by some people,” the post said.
“But the ship sank within two minutes, it’s an instinctive reaction for the captain to save himself. Just hope more people will be rescued and the weather monitoring system to be improved.”
China’s high-speed trains and air networks are the backbone of national transportation. But recent maritime accidents include the January sinking of a tugboat on the river between the eastern cities of Jingjiang and Zhangjiagang, which killed 22 people, including eight foreigners.