Hopes are fading of any more survivors being found inside a cruise ship which capsized on China’s Yangtze River.
Just 14 of the 456 mostly elderly people on board the Eastern Star have so far been rescued, after the vessel overturned in bad weather on Monday.
Officials say they will keep looking for survivors, but it could be China’s worst boat disaster in decades.
In a new development, maritime agency records show the ship was investigated for safety violations two years ago.
Documents on the Nanjing Maritime Safety website showed the Eastern Star was held alongside five other vessels in 2013 over safety concerns, although no further details are available.
State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) said 26 bodies had so far been recovered. Some of the few survivors were found trapped in air pockets inside the submerged hull of the ship.
“As long as there’s even a little hope, we will give it 100% and will absolutely not give up,” Transport Minister Yang Chuantang said, before adding that rescuers were in “a race against time”.
Premier Li Keqiang urged divers to keep searching the ship in an “overnight battle” to find more survivors after at least two remarkable rescues on Tuesday, including one of a 65-year-old woman.
‘It was tilting very badly’
Zhang Hui, 43, was rescued on Tuesday after floating for 10 hours clinging to a life jacket.
He was in his room when a storm hit and he felt the boat tilt. “It was tilting very badly, maybe at around a 45-degree angle,” he told the Xinhua state news agency.
He grabbed a life jacket and floated to the nearest window as the boat began to capsize “incredibly fast”.
He spent the night in the river, struggling to keep afloat. “I told myself, I just needed to hold on and everything would be okay,” he said.
He eventually made it ashore as dawn broke and received help at a nearby jetty.
The Eastern Star overturned in the Damazhou section of the Yangtze. It did not send an emergency signal.
The captain, who survived and is now in police custody along with the chief engineer, said the vessel had been caught in what he termed a cyclone. Chinese media said meteorologists had confirmed that a “sudden, strong and violent” storm hit the area.
A spokesman from China’s transport ministry, Zhong Shoudao, told CCTV the ship was not designed to withstand such strong winds.
“The ship was a grade B vessel, with a wind resistance below the official standards. Because of this, it was prone to capsizing in a tornado with wind blowing hard on it,” he said.
But the BBC’s Jo Floto in Beijing says questions are being asked about how bad weather could sink such a large boat in seconds while apparently not affecting any other vessels on the river.
Analysis: Jo Floto, BBC News, Beijing
As with all disasters, this sinking raises many important questions. All journalists in China are interested in the answers, but the authorities are not making it easy to report from the scene.
Premier Li Keqiang was the single most important figure on Chinese reports of the rescue operation. No one was allowed more prominence – not even the 65-year-old woman rescued by divers.
The Chinese government, like all governments, worries that public outrage at the scale of the disaster might become directed at the state.
But instead of using normal public relations it uses public information control.
On Tuesday, rescuers had heard voices coming from the hull of the ship, but there were no such reports on Wednesday morning.
Divers face the difficult task of searching the ship cabin by cabin with low visibility in the murky waters, officials say. There are also concerns that cutting through the hull may burst any air pockets used by possible survivors.
CCTV said that some of the bodies were recovered in Yueyang, Hunan province, some 50km (30 miles) away.
Premier Li Keqiang has demanded “transparent updates” on the operation but relatives of some of those on board have expressed anger at what they say is a lack of information from officials.
The Eastern Star
- The 76m-long, 2,200 tonne ship was named Dongfangzhixing in Chinese
- It was carrying 405 passengers – mostly elderly tourists but one three-year-old – as well as five travel agency employees and 46 crew members.
- The ship is owned by the Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corporation, and passengers had booked their trip through a travel agency in Shanghai.
- The cruise left the eastern city of Nanjing in April and was travelling to Chongqing in the south-west via the Three Gorges – a journey of at least 1,500km (930 miles).