China Ship Disaster: Despair Turns to Anger on Yangtze River

by Eunice Yoon, CNBC, Eric Baculinao and Alastair Jamieson /  / Updated  / Source: Reuters

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BEIJING — Despair turned to anger Wednesday as hopes faded for more than 400 people trapped for 48 hours in the capsized Eastern Star cruise ship on China's Yangtze River.

The official death toll rose to 26, state television channel CCTV reported, in what could become the country's deadliest maritime accident in decades.

Fourteen people have been rescued — including the ship’s captain and chief engineer — but the remainder of the 456 on board remained unaccounted for. Many of the passengers were elderly tourists.

Chinese authorities deployed scores more divers and a large crane as they escalated recovery efforts Wednesday.

However, frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of information, some of the passengers' relatives scuffled with officials in Shanghai — where the trips were booked through a local tour operator.

About two dozen family members, some crying and others shouting "help us," marched in central Shanghai towards the main government office watched by a heavy police presence.

“We want the government to give us a name list so that we know whether they are alive or not, we all want to know,” said a distraught Cai Bin, the son and nephew of two of the ship’s passengers.

“Today we've seen there are so many people here and the relevant departments [state security] have taken photos of me, I reckon I've already gone on the black list, but I don't care because I don't have any family left.

“What's the point of living if you don't have family? If you don't ever see me again please accept my apologies."

Premier Li Keqiang, the country's No. 2 political leader, has traveled to the disaster site in the Hubei province county of Jianli where he urged "all-out," 24-7 efforts.

The multi-decked Eastern Star was traveling upstream Monday night from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing when it overturned in what state media reported as a cyclone with winds of up to 80 mph.

State media reported that rescuers heard people yelling for help within the overturned hull, and divers on Tuesday rescued a 65-year-old woman and, later, two men who had been trapped.

CCTV said rescuers were deciding whether to cut into the overturned hull — an option that would imply hopes still lingered for finding survivors trapped in air pockets — or to bring two salvage ships to the stern and bow to act as a vise keeping the craft in place while a crane pulls it upright.

Transport Ministry spokesman Xu Chengguang said divers would search the ship for as long as possible. "Until all hope is lost and more accurate information becomes available, we will not give up on our final efforts, although I know that our colleagues at the scene are facing a great many difficulties," Xu told reporters.

Access to the site of the site was blocked by police and paramilitary troops stationed along the Yangtze River's embankment. Scores of trucks belonging to the People's Armed Police were parked nearby.

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