Families march to China shipwreck site to demand news

Family members of passengers of a sunken cruise ship push a cordon of paramilitary police as they march toward the site of the sunken ship in the Jianli section of Yangtze River, Hubei province, China, on June 3, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Family members of passengers of a sunken cruise ship push a cordon of paramilitary police as they march toward the site of the sunken ship in the Jianli section of Yangtze River, Hubei province, China, on June 3, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

JIANLI, China (REUTERS) - Dozens of people broke through a police cordon late on Wednesday as they marched towards the site of a sunken cruise ship in the Yangtze River to demand news of missing relatives.

Rescuers searched for more than 400 missing people, many of them elderly, but hopes were fading of finding more survivors from the worst shipping disaster in modern Chinese history.

Only 14 people, including the ship's captain, have been found alive since the ship capsized in a tornado on Monday night with 456 people on board. Just 29 bodies have been recovered.

Frustrated by the scarcity of information coming from local authorities, about 80 family members hired a bus to take them from Nanjing to Jianli county in Hubei, an eight-hour journey. They started walking towards the rescue site late on Wednesday night.

"This isn't going to be much use, we're just doing this for the government to see," said organiser Wang Feng.

The protesters later broke through a cordon of 20 to 25 paramilitary police who had tried to prevent them from going through a roadblock.

In the early hours of Thursday, the deputy police chief of Jiangsu province, where Nanjing is the capital, told the relatives they could go to the disaster site only in the daytime.

He promised to arrange buses for them to view the boat in the morning, adding that journalists were barred from going.

Volunteers from Jianli offered rides and water to the marchers, and some people tied yellow ribbons to their car wing mirrors. Some of the relatives broke down in tears near the site.

Earlier, 47 of the relatives asked the government to release the names of the living and the dead to them at the rescue site, according to a statement.

In a separate statement, other relatives questioned why most of the people rescued were crew members, why the boat did not dock, and why the captain and crew members had time to don their life vests but not to sound any alarm.

- Rescue effort -

State television showed rescuers, some standing on the Eastern Star's upturned hull, and scores of divers working through the night.

Divers face difficulties such as cabin doors blocked by tables and beds. There is also the fear that rashly cutting holes in the hull could burst air pockets keeping people alive.

"Although there's lots of work to do, saving people is still being put first," Transport Ministry spokesman Xu Chengguang told reporters.

TV pictures showed a rain-soaked Premier Li Keqiang, who is on the scene overseeing rescue efforts, bowing in respect to two bodies laid out on the deck of a boat covered in sheets.

"Life is greater than the heavens, and the burden on your shoulders is massive," Li told a group of military divers.

Some relatives were already bracing for the worst. "Yesterday I still had some hope. The boat is big and the water hadn't gone all the way in. Now, it's been more than 40 hours. I ask you, what do I have left?" said Wang, a 35-year-old wedding photographer whose father was on the ship.

The ship had been on an 11-day voyage upstream from Nanjing, near Shanghai, to Chongqing.

The People's Daily said the ship passed inspections by authorities in Chongqing last month. But according to documents from a local maritime watchdog, it was investigated and held by authorities due to defects in 2013.

The Nanjing Maritime Safety Administration had investigated Eastern Star as part of a safety campaign into passenger ferries and tour boats and held the ship along with five other vessels, according to three documents on the bureau's website.

The documents gave no details of the defects but said the issues were reported to the Chongqing maritime safety bureau.

The search area has been extended up to 220 km downstream, state television said, suggesting that bodies could have been swept far from where the ship foundered.

- Freak weather -

Zhang Hui, a tour guide who survived the disaster, told the official Xinhua news agency that it had rained so hard water seeped through cabin windows, and that the ship then listed violently.

"I thought, 'this isn't right', and I told my colleague, 'I think we're in trouble'. After I said that, the ship flipped over. It only took 30 seconds or a minute," Zhang said.

Li Yongjun, captain of a freighter that passed near the Eastern Star shortly before it capsized, told Xinhua the weather was so bad he had decided to anchor and wait out the storm.

He said he heard a voice from the river crying, "Help!" just after 10pm (1600 GMT), about 30 minutes after state media has said the Eastern Star capsized.

"The rain was just too heavy, there was no way to mount a rescue, so I shouted over, 'swim to the bank!'," Li said.

Police have detained the captain and chief engineer for questioning. An initial investigation found the ship was not overloaded and had enough life vests on board.

The ship overturned "within one or two minutes", Xinhua quoted the captain as saying. He was dragged out of the water near a pier just before midnight on Monday.

China's weather bureau said a freak tornado had buffeted the area the ship was passing through.

State media said it was the worst recorded ship disaster on the Yangtze River. In 1948, the steamship Kiangya blew up on the Huangpu river, killing more than 1,000 people.