Distraught relatives have rushed to the site of a capsized cruise ship in China seeking news of their loved ones, as rescue workers pulled dozens of bodies from the vessel.
State broadcaster CCTV said 75 people were confirmed dead after the Eastern Star overturned on the Yangtze river in a storm on Monday night, 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.
But fears are mounting 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 on Thursday.
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.
Three large cranes were moved into place as workers prepared to lift the 76.5 metre long vessel later in another delicate and risky operation that risks destabilising the wreck and sending it further down the fast-flowing Yangtze.
“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 on Thursday, Jianli official Huang Zhen told a media briefing.
The Eastern Star was carrying 456 people, most aged over 60, on a popular tourist route from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing when it sank in a matter of seconds.
Weather officials said a small but fast-moving tornado was in the area at the time.
In case bodies have floated downstream, authorities have expanded the search area to include areas around Wuhan, 220km further along China’s longest river.
Information about the sinking, and media access to the site, has been tightly controlled and the official death toll remains at 26.
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 Jinlai county, Hubei province, in the hope of finding out more about their loved ones.
Some 300 relatives travelled across the country to Jianli, according to a woman working at a government centre set up for family members, with another 200 expected in coming days.
Hotels across Jianli were reserving rooms while authorities have beefed up security at areas where they were expected to congregate, such as the riverbank and the town’s funeral parlour.
Authorities have limited official access for foreign journalists to brief trips along the river, and roadblocks are sited about two kilometres from the capsized vessel.