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JIANLI, China – Rescuers cut holes in the upturned hull of the Yangtze River cruise ship Thursday but there were no signs of life from almost 370 people missing inside.
Sparks from cutting equipment lit up the gloomy scene as howling winds and torrential rain swept across the spot where the Eastern Star capsized almost three days ago in what now seems certain to be China’s deadliest maritime disaster in decades.
With two giant salvage ships now alongside the vessel, and three others positioned close by, the ongoing rescue effort was poised to become a recovery. Workers on top of the hull wore white suits and masks.
Despite earlier promises by local political leaders of an “all-out” rescue effort, the area around the ship was quiet and subdued and the number of survivors remained stubbornly at 14.
The death toll climbed to 75 as divers found more drowned passengers in water so murky that they navigated by touch.
Teams of police and security workers officials lined the river bank as media were taken to the scene. Angry families, frustrated at the slow progress and lack of information, broke through a cordon late Wednesday and rushed closer.
"This isn't going to be much use, we're just doing this for the government to see," organizer Wang Feng said.
Thursday’s bodies were taken to the Jianli's Rongcheng Crematorium, in Hubei province, where some relatives tried to identify them. Officials at the facility were preparing to receive many more bodies in the coming hours.
Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said rescuers welded shut the opened sections of hull in order to preserve the ship's buoyancy and balance.
Many of the more than 450 people on board the multi-decked, 251-foot ship were retirees taking in the scenic vistas of the Yangtze on a cruise from Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing. Survivors include the ship's captain and chief engineer, both of whom have been taken into police custody after Monday night’s disaster.
The shallow-draft boat, which was not designed to withstand as heavy winds, overturned in what Chinese weather authorities have called a cyclone with winds up to 80 miles per hour.
Among the crowd observing developments outside the crematorium was farmer Wang Xun. "I can't imagine how terrifying it must have been for them," Wang said. "Old people should be with their families and go peacefully, not like this."