Hundreds still missing in China after a cruise ship capsizes

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JIANLI COUNTY, China (CNN) — More than a day and a half after a cruise ship carrying more than 450 people capsized in China’s Yangtze River, rescuers are struggling to find survivors.

The vast majority of the people who were on board the ship remained missing Wednesday, leaving their families anxiously waiting for news.

Fifteen survivors have been rescued, according to the Chinese Transportation Ministry. Eighteen dead bodies have been recovered, state media reported.

That leaves more than 420 people, many of them in their 60s and 70s, still unaccounted for in China’s longest river.

The ship, the Eastern Star, capsized late Monday during a storm along the section of the Yangtze that flows through Jianli County in central China’s Hubei province. The captain and the chief engineer have been taken into police custody for questioning, according to authorities.

Combing the river

Rescue workers scouring the polluted, sediment-laden waters of the Yangtze are focusing on three key tasks, state media reported Wednesday.

One team is trying to cut open the part of the upended ship’s hull that’s sticking out of the water. Another is delving into the muddy river to search compartments inside the submerged portion of the ship. And a third is looking along the Yangtze for people who got swept away by currents.

A diver who found somebody alive Tuesday stressed the lack of visibility inside the wreck.

“I swam back and forth three times. And by the third time, I felt somebody was there above me,” Gwan Dong told Chinese state-run broadcaster CCTV. “As soon as I got out of the water, I noticed the trapped victim, it was pitch dark with just him inside the cabin, and nobody else.”

Experts said the divers face a difficult and dangerous challenge.

“Just trying to get into the vessel is going to be difficult and let alone trying to explore the ship,” Capt. Gregg Baumann, director of diving for the U.S. Navy, told CNN. “And for divers who’ve probably never been in the ship before, going into the ship for the first time, and you can’t see. You’re going in hand over hand.”

Survivor: Ship went over quickly

Details have emerged of the terrifying situation on the river as the ship ran into trouble Monday night.

Most of the passengers on the Eastern Star had gone to bed when a violent storm struck and rain pounded the windows with such force that water seeped into the cabins, survivor Zhang Hui told China’s official news agency Xinhua.

The ship overturned so quickly that Zhang, a tour guide from Shanghai, had only had 30 seconds to grab a life jacket and get out of his cabin, he said.

The captain and chief engineer have both reported the vessel was hit by a tornado. And the China Meteorological Administration said a tornado less than 1 kilometer in diameter and lasting 15 to 20 minutes occurred around the time the ship capsized, according to state media.

Satellite information from a website run by the Transportation Ministry shows the ship suddenly changing direction a matter of minutes before authorities say it sank.

It wasn’t clear what caused the ship to start moving downstream rather than upstream. It’s possible that the change in direction came after the ship was left disabled and drifting by the storm.

There has been confusion over the exact number of people on board the ship went it sank. Citing authorities, state media have reported totals of both 456 and 458 over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday.

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