JIANLI, China (AFP) - Distraught and angry relatives rushed to the site of a capsized cruise ship in China on Thursday seeking news of their loved ones, as rescue workers recovered dozens of dead bodies.
A total of 75 people were confirmed dead after the "Eastern Star" overturned on the Yangtze river in a storm on Monday evening, with hundreds of elderly tourists on board.
Just 14 people have been found alive, some hidden in air pockets, and rescue workers started cutting into the hull of the capsized ship overnight in a last-ditch attempt to find any other survivors trapped inside.
Relatives were being closely monitored by police after they arrived in the local area, and were frustrated at not being allowed to the riverbank to the see the sunken vessel for themselves.
Fears are mounting that the disaster could be China's worst shipping accident in almost 70 years, as CCTV said on its microblog that some 39 dead bodies had been recovered overnight.
Torrential rain lashed the site in central Hubei province's Jianli county, and the swift-flowing and murky brown waters of the Yangtze are also proving a huge challenge for rescue divers searching the boat room-by-room.
Work on the perilous operation to cut into the hull was suspended early Thursday due to persistent bad weather that has hampered the rescue effort from the start, state media said.
But under two huge cranes, workers later welded giant hooks onto the hull, AFP witnessed, as they prepared to lift the 76.5m long vessel in another delicate and risky operation that could destabilise the wreck and send it further down the river.
"If after 72 hours no sign of life is detected, then the boat can be turned over," rescue commander Wang Zhigang told the official Xinhua news agency.
A total of 75 bodies had been recovered by mid-afternoon Thursday, Jianli official Huang Zhen told a briefing.
The Eastern Star was carrying 456 people most aged over 60, on a tourist trip when it sank in a matter of seconds.
Weather officials said a small but fast-moving tornado hit the area at the time.
Authorities have expanded the search area to include areas 220km further along the river, as Chinese media reported bodies found dozens of kilometres from the vessel.
Information about the sinking and media access to the site, has been tightly controlled.
The vessel was cited for safety infractions two years ago, according to a notice by the Nanjing Maritime Bureau, which gave no further details.
Hundreds of family members, frustrated by the lack of news, converged on the disaster site in the hope of finding out more about their loved ones.
Among them, 40-year-old Jiang Sudong had travelled from Shanghai to seek news on his brother Jiang Weiming, aged 41.
"I am really angry that we are not being allowed to see for ourselves what is happening at the scene of the boat," he said, as he waited outside a funeral parlour in Jianli.
"I am very angry with Shanghai's city government for the lack of information, but we still receive no information here," he added, as he attempted to move the interview away from watching police.
"They are very sensitive," he said under his breath, as he peered at the uniformed officers.
Moments later, some 23 minivans, each with numbered stickers, drove out of the funeral parlour in numerical order carrying coffins.
Some 300 relatives travelled across the country to Jianli, according to a woman working at a government centre set up for family members, with 200 more expected.
"There are more who did not register with us," she told AFP on Thursday.
Hotels across the county were reserving rooms while authorities beefed up security at areas where relatives were expected to congregate, such as the riverbank and the funeral parlour.
Authorities have limited official access for foreign journalists to brief trips along the river, and set-up roadblocks about two kilometres from the capsized vessel.
China's tightly controlled media has mostly been limited to reproducing official coverage focusing on rescue efforts and China's Premier Li Keqiang, who is at the site.
Presdient Xi Jinping and China's other top leaders were briefed on the situation Thursday, Xinhua said, adding they "demanded serious investigation into the cause of the tragedy".