JIANLI, China: Relatives of more than 400 people missing after a cruise ship capsized on China’s Yangtze river were hoping for a “miracle” Wednesday, as authorities said they were racing against time to find any survivors.
State media said just 14 people have been rescued from the “Eastern Star” which overturned late Monday in a storm, with just a section of its hull emerging from the murky waters.
Another 18 bodies have been recovered, state broadcaster CCTV said, leaving hundreds of mostly elderly passengers still missing and possibly trapped within the ship, which witnesses said sank in a matter of seconds.
A total of 456 people had been on board the vessel, which was plying a popular tourist route from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing.
The ship has 150 compartments and divers are searching each room one by one, CCTV said, while authorities have expanded the search area to include areas around Wuhan, 220 kilometers (136 miles) downstream.
Engineers are looking at the possibility of cutting open the hull in three places or lifting the vessel into an upright position, the state broadcaster said.
But divers looking for survivors face extremely difficult conditions.
“The river water in the where the accident happened is quite muddy and there is virtually no visibility,” Zhang Jianxin, vice director of the transport ministry’s rescue department, said on CCTV.
“Divers can only rely on touch while submerging, searching and rescuing.”
Some 36 hours after the accident, hopes for more survivors are dwindling.
“We are in a race against the clock in the search,” transport minister Yang Chuantang said.
“It happened suddenly and the rescue has been quite difficult,” he said Tuesday as driving rain hampered the search. “As long as there is the slightest hope, we will make every effort and never give up.”
Relatives were also refusing to give up.
“I’m hoping for a miracle,” Tan Zhenxing, whose father worked on the boat, told the China Daily newspaper.
Rescuers pulled at least three survivors from the wreckage Tuesday after they cut through part of the hull to reach the interior of the vessel, but then worked through the night in vain.
Grim images broadcast on state-run CCTV showed what appeared to be a dead woman being pulled from the water, her body already rigid.
Fields around the site of the capsized boat were heavily waterlogged, and many of the pathways being used by rescue workers were ankle-deep in mud and rainwater.
Emergency vehicles heading out of a rescue center set up on the riverside had to pass through deep water, and emergency crews labored under heavy waterproof clothing and boots.
Passengers seemed to have little warning before the ship sank, with Zhang Hui, a 43-year-old tour guide on board, telling Xinhua that he had “30 seconds to grab a life jacket”.
The captain and chief engineer, who were among the survivors and were being questioned by police, both reportedly said the ship was caught in a freak storm.
A local man surnamed Wang told AFP that the storm on Monday night was the worst he had seen in years.
CCTV said the 250-foot (76.5-metre) vessel had floated three kilometers (1.9 miles) down river after it capsized in Jianli county, part of the central province of Hubei.
Condolences for the disaster came from the United States, European Union and the UN.
Local reports said the passengers were mostly aged over 60.
In Shanghai, where 97 of the boat’s passengers came from, the local government had set up a reception point for their relatives. Many of the passengers from Shanghai were elderly and retired.
On Tuesday, relatives waiting at the travel agency which organized the tours and a government office designated to receive them had complained about lack of information as they waited for word about the fate of their loved ones.
Shanghai had sent government representatives to the accident site, as well as a team of divers and workers with salvage equipment to help in the rescue efforts, local media reported.