Rescuers in southern China were racing to rescue people Tuesday after hearing cries for help from the wreckage of a passenger ship that capsized in a storm the previous night with 458 people, many of them elderly, on board.
Five passengers were confirmed to have died and hundreds more were feared dead in the accident, which occurred at approximately 9:38 p.m. local time Monday (9:38 a.m. ET) during a a cruise from Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing.
Divers on Tuesday pulled three people alive from inside the capsized ship, bringing the tally of those brought to safety to 15, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported that the ship's captain and chief engineer were among those rescued.
Search teams heard people calling out from within the partially submerged ship when they climbed aboard the upside-down hull. Footage from CCTV showed rescuers in orange life vests climbing on top of the upside down hull, with one of them lying down tapping a hammer and listening for a response, then pointing downward.
Divers later pulled out at least one survivor, a 65-year-old woman, from inside the overturned hull, CCTV said. At least seven of the survivors had swam ashore following the wreck.
The ship, named the Eastern Star, had been carrying 406 Chinese passengers, 47 crew members, and five travel agency employees. CCTV said most of the passengers were between 50 and 80 years old.
The Xinhua News Agency quoted the captain and chief engineer as saying the ship sank quickly after being caught in a cyclone. Official Chinese news sources said both the captain and chief engineer were in police custody for questioning. The Communist Party-run People's Daily said the ship sank within two minutes.
The ship sank in the Damazhou waterway section, where the river is about 50 feet deep. The Yangtze is the world's third-longest river and sometimes floods during the summer monsoon season.
The overturned ship had drifted almost 2 miles downstream before coming to rest close to the river shore, where choppy waters made the rescue difficult. The location is about 110 miles west of the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan.
The fact that the capsized ship drifted downstream was a good sign for rescuers because it meant there was enough air inside to give it buoyancy, and could mean there are enough air pockets for survivors to breathe, Chi-Mo Park, a professor of naval architecture and ocean engineering at South Korea's Ulsan University, told the Associated Press.
"It all depends how much space there is inside the vessel," Park said.
More than 1,000 armed police officers, 30 soldiers, 140 navy divers and more than 40 small boats were sent to take part in search and rescue operations, CCTV reported.
An air force spokesman said China's armed forces also sent six helicopters from Beijing and Wuhan. An initial batch of 39 medical staff from the city of Guangzhou arrived at the site, and an additional 38 are expected later Tuesday, according to CCTV.
The Eastern Star measured 251 feet long and 36 feet wide and was capable of carrying a maximum of 534 people, CCTV reported. It is owned by the Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp., which focuses on tourism routes in the popular Three Gorges river canyon region. The company could not be reached for comment.
CCTV and local media reported that 6 inches of rain had fallen in the region over the past 24 hours and winds reached 80 mph during the accident.
Tour guide Zhang Hui said in an interview with Xinhua from his hospital bed that he grabbed a life jacket with seconds to spare as the ship listed in the storm, sending bottles rolling off tables and suddenly turned all the way over.
The 43-year-old Zhang said he drifted in the Yangtze all night despite not being able to swim, reaching shore as dawn approached.
"The raindrops hitting my face felt like hailstones," he said. "'Just hang in there a little longer,' I told myself," he added.
Many of the ships passengers started out in Shanghai, taking a bus to Nanjing for the departure to Chongqing. Relatives of passengers gathered in Shanghai at a travel agency that had booked many of the trips, and they later headed to a government office to try to get more information about the accident.
Huang Yan, 49, an accountant in Shanghai, wept as she told a reporter that she believes that her husband, 49, and his father, who is in his 70s, were aboard the boat. But she said she couldn't be sure because she hadn't seen an official passenger list yet.
"Why did the captain leave the ship while the passengers were still missing?" Yan shouted. "We want the government to release the name list to see who was on the boat."
A group of about a dozen retirees from a Shanghai bus company were on the trip, said a woman who identified herself only by her surname, Chen. Among them, she said, were her elder sister and her elder sister's husband, both 60, and their granddaughter, 6.
"This group has traveled together a lot, but only on short trips. This is the first time they traveled for a long trip," Chen said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.