Relatives cling on to slim hope as rescuers search capsized ship in Yangtze river

Ms Tan Mei (left) and Ms Chen Jian, wife and sister of missing crew member Chen Bo, 33, await news at a hotel in Jianli county, Hubei province. -- PHOTO: KOR KIAN BENG
Ms Tan Mei (left) and Ms Chen Jian, wife and sister of missing crew member Chen Bo, 33, await news at a hotel in Jianli county, Hubei province. -- PHOTO: KOR KIAN BENG
This photograph taken on June 2, 2015 shows relatives of passengers on board the doomed vessel Dongfangzhixing or "Eastern Star" waiting to register in preparation to head to the scene of the accident, at the Chongqing Wanzhou Eastern shipping compan
This photograph taken on June 2, 2015 shows relatives of passengers on board the doomed vessel Dongfangzhixing or "Eastern Star" waiting to register in preparation to head to the scene of the accident, at the Chongqing Wanzhou Eastern shipping company in Chongqing. -- PHOTO: AFP
This photograph taken on June 2, 2015 shows relatives of passengers on board the doomed vessel Dongfangzhixing or "Eastern Star" waiting to register in preparation to head to the scene of the accident, at the Chongqing Wanzhou Eastern shipping compan
This photograph taken on June 2, 2015 shows relatives of passengers on board the doomed vessel Dongfangzhixing or "Eastern Star" waiting to register in preparation to head to the scene of the accident, at the Chongqing Wanzhou Eastern shipping company in Chongqing. -- PHOTO: AFP
This photograph taken on June 2, 2015 shows relatives of passengers on board the doomed vessel Dongfangzhixing or "Eastern Star" mourning as they wait to register in preparation to head to the scene of the accident, at the Chongqing Wanzhou Eastern s
This photograph taken on June 2, 2015 shows relatives of passengers on board the doomed vessel Dongfangzhixing or "Eastern Star" mourning as they wait to register in preparation to head to the scene of the accident, at the Chongqing Wanzhou Eastern shipping company in Chongqing. -- PHOTO: AFP
This photograph taken on June 2, 2015 shows relatives of passengers on board the doomed vessel Dongfangzhixing or "Eastern Star" waiting to register in preparation to head to the scene of the accident, at the Chongqing Wanzhou Eastern shipping compan
This photograph taken on June 2, 2015 shows relatives of passengers on board the doomed vessel Dongfangzhixing or "Eastern Star" waiting to register in preparation to head to the scene of the accident, at the Chongqing Wanzhou Eastern shipping company in Chongqing. -- PHOTO: AFP
This photograph taken on June 2, 2015 shows relatives of passengers on board the doomed vessel Dongfangzhixing or "Eastern Star" registering in preparation to head to the scene of the accident, at the Chongqing Wanzhou Eastern shipping company in Cho
This photograph taken on June 2, 2015 shows relatives of passengers on board the doomed vessel Dongfangzhixing or "Eastern Star" registering in preparation to head to the scene of the accident, at the Chongqing Wanzhou Eastern shipping company in Chongqing. -- PHOTO: AFP

Relatives of more than 400 people still missing after  a cruise ship capsized on China's Yangtze River were clinging on to slim hope on Wednesday, as rescue workers raced against time and wet weather to search for signs of life in a small section of the ship's  overturned hull.

The  search area in the river will also be expanded up to 220km downstream, the official Xinhua news agency reported, suggesting that bodies could have been swept far away from where the Eastern Star had gone down.

 More than 3,000 people had been deployed for the rescue operations at the Jianli section of the Yangtze River, which was closed off to non-state media. 

State television footage showed some rescuers standing on the upturned hull working through the night. But only 14 people have been rescued since the ship  capsized late Monday in a storm. Twelve were picked up from the waters while the remaining two were pulled out from the wreck. Another 19 bodies have been recovered, state media said.

The 76.5m-long vessel  was plying a popular cruise route from eastern Nanjing city to south-western Chongqing city when the disaster happened. The vessel capsized during a freak tornado and  overturned "within one or two  minutes", Xinhua  said, quoting  the captain who survived.

The ship was carrying 456 people - 405 passengers, five tour guides and 46 crew members. The passengers are believed to be Chinese nationals, most of them aged over 60.

Among those who survived was  65-year-old Zhu Hongmei,  who was  rescued on Tuesday.  She and her husband Cao Liangming, 68, were travelling with seven  friends. Her husband is still missing.

Their eldest of two sons, Cao Cen, 43, told The Straits Times: "My mom's physical condition has recovered but she's still troubled mentally. Anyone who's been through such an experience would find it hard to handle it.

"She's worried about my dad. We can only try to give her hope and tell her the rescue work is still ongoing. But so many hours have passed that even we the children will have to make mental preparations."

Also awaiting news is Madam  Tan Mei, wife of crew member  Chen Bo, 33. She said she last saw her husband on May 18 before the cruise ship departed Chongqing for Nanjing. They last spoke on the phone on Monday morning (June 1), the day that her grandmother's funeral was held in Chongqing.

Madam Tan said she tried to persuade her husband to return for the funeral but he declined as he wanted to earn more money to buy a new house. The couple, who have an eight-year-old daugher, have been living with Mr Chen's parents.

His monthly salary as a shipping crew for the past 13 years is about 3,000 to 4,000 yuan (S$654-S$873).

"I should have been more insistent in making him return home earlier," she told The Straits Times.

Relatives of the missing, angry at what they perceive as a lack of information, had scuffled with officials in Shanghai. Early on Wednesday, about two dozen family members, some crying and others shouting "help us", marched down streets in central Shanghai towards the main government office, according to reports.

All of the passengers on board had booked their trips through a Shanghai-based travel agency.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who rushed to the scene to oversee rescue efforts, called for "regular and transparent updates" on the rescue and investigation, and said authorities must ensure adequate personnel and funding. He also paid his respects to those who died in the tragedy.

kianbeng@sph.com.sg