AS THE Eastern Star cruise ship listed heavily amid pounding rain on the Yangtze River, tour guide Zhang Hui told a colleague: “Looks like we are in trouble.”
The vessel capsized in a storm on Monday night with 458 people aboard, prompting a frantic rescue effort. At least 15 people were brought to safety with three being pulled from the overturned hull yesterday, and five people were confirmed dead.
The vessel was carrying mostly elderly tourists from Nanjing to the south-western city of Chongqing when it overturned in China’s Hubei province.
Divers rescued a 65-year-old woman and two men who had been trapped, state broadcaster CCTV reported. It said more people had been found and were being rescued, but did not say whether they were still inside the overturned hull.
CCTV video showed rescuers in orange life vests climbing on the hull, with one of them lying down tapping a hammer and listening for a response, then gesturing downward.
“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 said.
The survivors included the ship’s captain and chief engineer, both of whom were taken into police custody, CCTV said.
Relatives who gathered in Shanghai, where many of the tourists started their journey by bus, questioned whether the captain did enough to ensure the passengers’ safety and demanded answers from local officials in unruly scenes that drew a heavy police response.
News agency Xinhua quoted the captain and the chief engineer as saying the four-level Eastern Star sank quickly after being caught in what they described as a cyclone.
The Communist Party-run People’s Daily said the ship sank within two minutes.
Mr Zhang, the tour guide, said in an interview from his hospital bed that he grabbed a life jacket with seconds to spare as the ship listed in the storm, sending bottles rolling off tables and suddenly turned all the way over.
The 43-year-old said he drifted in the Yangtze all night despite not being able to swim, reaching shore as dawn approached.
He said: “The raindrops hitting my face felt like hailstones. ‘Just hang in there a little longer,’ I told myself.”
Some survivors swam ashore, but others were rescued after search teams climbed on the upside-down hull and heard people yelling for help inside more than 12 hours after the ship overturned.
A total of 13 navy divers were on the scene and 170 more were joining them, Mr Chen said.
A 65-year-old woman was rescued by divers who took an extra set of breathing apparatus into the bowels of the ship and spent about five minutes teaching her how to use it before bringing her out to safety, Mr Chen said.
“That old woman had a very strong will and learned very fast, and after 20 minutes she surfaced to the water,” he added.
Chinese premier Li Keqiang travelled to the accident site about 110 miles west of the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan.
The overturned ship had drifted about two miles downstream before coming to rest close to shore, where the river’s fast currents made the rescue difficult.
The fact that the capsized ship drifted downstream was a good sign for rescuers because it meant there was enough air inside to give it buoyancy, and could mean there were enough air pockets for survivors, said Chi-Mo Park, a professor of naval architecture and ocean engineering at South Korea’s Ulsan University.
He added: “It all depends how much space there is inside the vessel.”