With rescue divers working to save people possibly trapped inside the hull of a capsized cruise ship on China’s Yangtze River, relatives of the more than 400 passengers and crew who are still missing are anxiously awaiting news of their fate.
The Eastern Star capsized on a remote stretch of the river during a severe storm Monday night with 458 people aboard, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. China's weather bureau reported that a tornado hit the area around the time the boat overturned, an unusual event in a country where tornadoes rarely occur.
Only 15 people are known to have survived the accident, and at least five people were confirmed dead as rescue efforts continued into Tuesday night. Hundreds are most likely still inside the overturned vessel.
"We will do everything we can to rescue everyone trapped in there, no matter they're still alive or not and we will treat them as our own families," Hubei military region commander Chen Shoumin told reporters Tuesday, adding that 170 additional divers would soon arrive.
Fifty boats and more than 3,000 people are on the scene to help with the rescue operation, reports The Associated Press. Rescuers have reportedly cut into the ship in an attempt to reach possible survivors. On Tuesday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived at the site to oversee the operation.
The state broadcaster CCTV has reported that most of the passengers were 50 to 80 years old. They boarded the ship in Nanjing on Thursday for a nearly two-week trip up the river to see the massive Three Gorges Dam.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the incident – the most disastrous transportation accident in China since 40 people died in a high-speed train crash in 2011 – is riveting the country.
As a traditionally Confucian country, where elders are revered, the news had a particular resonance. It followed a fire at a nursing home last week that killed 38 people that raised questions about elder care in the rapidly aging society.
As rescue efforts continue, stories of survival have started to emerge. Divers pulled a 65-year-old woman from an air pocket inside the ship Tuesday afternoon. Meanwhile, search teams aboard the upside-down hull have heard people yelling for help from within more than 12 hours after it overturned.
Yet the relatives of those who are still missing know that their loved ones are in a race against time. Reuters reports that about 60 aggrieved family members gathered outside the Xiehe Tourism Agency in Shanghai. (Many of the passengers had booked their cruise tickets though the agency.) With emotions running high, they demanded answers from local officials in an unruly scene that drew a heavy police response.
"I only found out about this on the television news while I was at work and I came here," Wang Sheng told Reuters. He said his mother and father were on board the ship. "I cried all the way here and here I can't find anyone, the door is locked."
Among the survivors were the ship's captain and chief engineer, both of whom were taken into police custody. While those gathered in Shanghai questioned whether the captain did enough to ensure the safety of passengers, Xinhua reported that initial investigations had found the ship was not overloaded and it had enough life vests on board for all of them.