China says small tornado hit area where ship sank

A man is pulled out alive by divers and rescuers after a ship sank at the Jianli section of the Yangtze River, Hubei province, China on June 2, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A man is pulled out alive by divers and rescuers after a ship sank at the Jianli section of the Yangtze River, Hubei province, China on June 2, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - A small and fast-moving tornado hit the area where a Chinese cruise ship capsized leaving more than 400 missing, weather officials said, possibly shedding light on the disaster's cause.

Early investigations showed that tornado winds in Jianli county in the central province of Hubei had a speed of more than 117kmh, China's state meteorological bureau said on its website late Tuesday.

The word used by the meteorological bureau can also be translated as "cyclone" but the account strongly suggested it was a tornado.

A person who answered the phone at the bureau on Wednesday said relevant officials could not comment as they had been sent to Hubei.

The website report matches an account given by the captain of the "Eastern Star" which overturned late Monday with 456 people on board. He said, according to a translation carried in state media, that the vessel was hit by a "cyclone." The tornado on Monday lasted between 15 and 20 minutes and was about a kilometre wide, the report cited weather forecasters as saying.

It was "regional, small-scale and came all of a sudden", the report said, without stating its precise location.

Chief forecaster Yu Xiaoding was quoted as saying that it likely ranked "above EF-1" or a "moderately damaging" tornado according to the widely-used enhanced Fujita scale.

It was probably created by a mix of prevailing winds and heavy rain in the area, which caused a column of air to begin to swirl, he added.

Tornados are rare in most parts of China but sometimes occur in provinces including Hubei, where the ferry sank, he added.

State media said 14 people have been rescued from the "Eastern Star" as of Wednesday, with more than 400 still missing and possibly trapped inside the ship.