A Chinese ship carrying 458 people sunk in the Yangtze River at around 9:30 Monday night. Tuesday, hundreds of rescuers scrambled to reach passengers believed to be trapped within the capsized ship. As of Tuesday afternoon, 15 passengers had been rescued and five confirmed dead, Xinhua reported. The sinking looks to be the worst maritime disaster in China in nearly 70 years.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was dispatched to the site “to direct rescue and emergency handling affairs,” according to Xinhua.
The ship, named the Eastern Star (Dongfang zhi xing), had 406 passengers on board as well as 47 crew members and five travel agency employees. Most of the passengers were tourists; Yangtze River cruises are a a popular tourist activity. The vessel, en route from Nanjing to Chongqing, sunk in Hubei province, in the Jianli area. Many of the passengers were reportedly senior citizens — over half were above 60 years old, according to Quartz.
According to the captain and chief engineer of the boat, both of whom were rescued, the boat sunk within a matter of minutes after encountering a cyclone. Strong winds and heavy rain were still in the area on Tuesday, making rescue efforts difficult. Rescuers were seen tapping on the boat – they reported hearing answering taps and calls for help from trapped passengers within. But progress has been slow on freeing any trapped survivors. Most of the 15 rescued passengers escaped the boat just after the capsizing and either swam to shore or were rescued by passing boats.
One survivor recounted his harrowing experience to Xinhua. Zhang Hui, one of the travel agency employees, said that most of the passengers had gone to bed at around 9 pm, half an hour before the boat capsized. Zhang recounted rain pounding the side of the boat, seeping in despite closed windows. The boat then tilted to a nearly 45 degree angle before capsizing entirely. Zhang and a colleague were able to grab life jackets and escape through a window.
Zhang, who does not know how to swim, drifted for 10 hours before reaching shore. Xinhua notes that other survivors have been found as far as six miles away from the crash site. But it seems many who escaped the boat did not make it to shore – Zhang recounted seeing a dozen other survivors in the water immediately after the crash, but said after about five minutes there were only three to four people left.
Relatives of passengers on the ship flocked to the offices of Shanghai-based Xiehe Travel, the company operating the Yangtze River tour. They complained to journalists that they were receiving little information regarding the accident or the fate of their loved ones.
China has strict safety laws regarding passenger ships, and only further tightened safety regulations following the sinking of the Sewol ferry in South Korea last April, experts told Reuters. The only other maritime accident in China’s recent history to come close to the scale of this incident came in 1999, when a ferry sank in the Yellow Sea, killing 280.
The investigation into the sinking is ongoing, with the captain reportedly having been detained. Another passenger ship on the Yangtze traveling in the same area as the Eastern Star reportedly made an unexpected stop in southeastern Hubei to avoid rough weather conditions, according to Chinese media. The Eastern Star continued on, with tragic consequences.