According to the passenger list, there were 458 people aboard the “Dongfangzhixing”, a chartered vessel that plies the Yangtze River. The cruise ship, also known as the “Oriental Star”, sailed into bad weather yesterday evening and capsized at 9.28pm.
The captain reported seeing a tornado. This morning, local news reports state that fewer than a dozen had been rescued.
The cruise ship was travelling upriver, from the eastern city of Nanjing to the country’s largest city Chongqing, in the southwest. The overturned hull is now drifting, pushed by along by strong currents as emergency personnel in more than 100 boats look on. The official Xinhua news agency said rescuers could hear people calling for help from inside the stricken craft.
Most of the passengers were between 50 and 80 years old and had been travelling as members of a tour group. The middle section of the Yangtze is a popular tourist attraction, with dramatic canyon walls and fast flowing waters. This stretch of river also hosts the world’s largest hydroelectric project, the Three Gorges Dam.
According to Xinhua, the “Oriental Star” was not overloaded and was thought to be carrying a sufficient number of life jackets. The ship sank within two minutes and no distress call was issued, although the captain and chief engineer are reported to have survived the incident. They are currently being questioned by police.
The alarm was raised by seven passengers who managed to jump from the 76.5 metre long vessel and swim to shore.
Chinese President and Communist Party boss, Xi Jinping, is reported to have “issued important instructions” to search and rescue personnel while the country’s Prime Minister, Li Keqiang has arrived on the scene. The involvement of both men, an indication of the seriousness the government is now viewing the incident.
Five bodies have been removed from the vessel but state media says the efforts of rescue teams are being hampered by strong winds and rain.