More than 400 people were missing Tuesday after a Chinese cruise ship was caught in a storm and capsized on the Yangtze River.
Chinese authorities deployed a 140-person frogman team, thousands of soldiers and five helicopters to the site of the sinking, whose death toll could exceed last year’s ferry disaster in South Korea that killed 304 people.
The ship, called the Dongfangzhixing, or Eastern Star, was carrying 458 passengers and crew on a 930-mile route from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southern metropolis of Chongqing when it sank about 9:30 p.m. Monday, according to the official New China News Agency.
Most of the passengers were tourists between the ages of 50 and 80, although there was one as young as 3.
According to a statement from the local government, crew members called for help around 11:50 p.m. after swimming to shore, more than two hours after the boat sank. State media did not explain the delay.
Nearly all the news about the sinking has come from state media, which gave conflicting estimates Tuesday on the number of people rescued, ranging from about 15 to more than 30.
At least five people were confirmed dead, according to the state broadcaster CCTV.
Zhang Hui spent the night drifting in the river before he was found Tuesday.
Many of the passengers had already gone to bed when rain began pouring down and lightning streaked across the sky, the 43-year-old tour guide said in an interview with the state-run news agency.
As the ship started listing in the storm, Zhang grabbed a life jacket but had no time to put it on before the vessel capsized. He can't swim, so he clutched the jacket to stay afloat, he said.
At first, he could see about a dozen people in the river yelling for help. But as the hours passed, the voices faded away.
"The raindrops hitting my face felt like hailstones," he recalled. "Just hang in there a little longer, I told myself."
As dawn approached, Zhang saw land and was able to drag himself ashore, where he was found and taken to hospital.
"Life jackets are accessible in all of the cruise's cabins. If it had not happened so fast, a lot of people could've been saved," a sobbing Zhang said from his hospital bed.
Relatives of the missing gathered outside the Shanghai tour agency Xiehe Travel, which handled bookings for the cruise, seeking information about missing loved ones. But the office was closed Tuesday, according to news reports. A company representative contacted by the Los Angeles Times refused to comment on the incident.
“I’m very, very sad,” said Qu Qing, a woman from Changzhou city, in Jiangsu province, who had six family members on board, all in their 60s and 70s. “My father, his three younger sisters and one younger brother [and] my mother boarded on May 28 in Nanjing. They saw a travel ad in the local newspaper; then they contacted the travel agency and went. My father was so happy!
“We can’t accept this as reality,” she continued, sobbing. “All of our relatives are trying to find information on the Internet. We learned that the authorities in Nanjing and Shanghai were consoling the families, so I went with my uncle and my uncle-in-law … to the Changzhou Tourism Bureau, but we were treated terribly. We had to take instant cardio-reliever pills to pull through it.”
The ship's captain and chief engineer, both of whom made it to shore, said the vessel sank quickly after getting caught in a cyclone, according to the news agency. Both were taken into police custody.
The sinking happened in the Damazhou waterway section of the Yangtze, the world’s third-longest river. The section has a depth of about 50 feet, according to the news agency, and in pictures posted online, the hull was visible just above the water’s surface.
According to state media, President Xi Jinping “issued important instructions immediately,” dispatching a major search-and-rescue effort to the scene in Hubei province. Premier Li Keqiang arrived there by midday Tuesday.
FOR THE RECORD
June 1, 10:45 p.m.: An earlier version of this article referred to Li Keqiang as the vice president. He is China's premier.
The rescue effort involves 150 boats and more than 3,000 people, including 2,100 soldiers, according to the news agency.
Pictures posted online showed rescue workers in army fatigues and orange safety vests deploying small boats and standing on the ferry’s capsized hull. Fog and rain were hampering the operation, local news media reported.
"We are very busy right now," said an employee who answered the phone at the Changjiang Maritime Safety Administration. "We are trying our best to rescue people."
The ship was owned by the state-run Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp. Rescuers told the New China News Agency that it was “not overloaded” and was “equipped with sufficient life jackets” when it sank.
"Our bosses have gone to the site,” said a Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp. employee, when reached by phone. “But the place is sealed, so we don't have any updates yet. Right now our superiors are trying to console the crew's family members.”
The employee, who said he worked in the company's finance department, declined to give his name.
The People's Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, said the ship went down in about two minutes amid 40-mph winds and drifted for about two miles before coming to a rest. Seven people swam to shore and alerted police about the sinking.
The ship was carrying 406 passengers, five tour guides and 47 crew members, the official news agency said.
The news portal Sina compiled a short missing-persons report Tuesday. Many of the posts were by children and grandchildren of the passengers who had spent the morning anxiously trying to reach their family members on the boat by phone.
“Zhang Yuming, male, born in 1952, father of Weibo user ‘HappyBrother23,’ ” said one relative, referring to his user name on China's most popular microblog. “HappyBrother23’s father and brother-in-law departed together from the gate of the Shanghai Grand Theater at 7 a.m. on May 28, and then took a bus to Nanjing to get on the boat.”
“Hu Xiufang, female, 65 years old, of Jiangsu province," said another. "Seven or eight members of the same family were on board.”
And a third: “Wang Chuanyu, male, 65 years old … His friend Luo Jigang suggested that they travel to Chongqing for fun. The price wasn’t high — just over 2000 yuan [$322] — and the original plan was to travel for half a month. Last night at 8:00, my father spoke with our family by phone. I tried to reach my father this morning, and his phone isn’t connecting.”
Boat accidents on the Yangtze have been common in recent years.
In January, a tugboat sank in Jiangsu province, killing 22 of the 25 people on board, including eight foreigners. In May 2013, three people died near Yibin Sichuan when a boat overturned. Two accidents in 2012 — one in Anhui province and another in Jiangsu — left 13 people dead.
Kaiman reported from Bangkok, Thailand, and Makinen from Beijing. Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.