More than 430 Chinese tourists, many of them thought to be elderly, were still missing early Wednesday, more than a day after their tour boat sank in the Yangtze River after being hit by a strong storm, possibly a tornado.
Thousands of rescuers worked to find survivors, with some managing to extract three people trapped alive in the overturned boat. But some 30 hours after the disaster, only 14 people had been rescued, according to Hubei province officials and the Xinhua news service.
Only seven were confirmed dead, but with dawn coming a second time to the rescue site, the number of dead seemed certain to rise significantly amid predictions the sinking of the boat would become China’s worst maritime disaster since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Chinese officials kept tight control over news coverage of the disaster. Numerous journalists were stopped at roadblocks in Hubei province and prevented from getting near riverbanks to observe the rescue operations.
According to China Digital Times, a website that tracks the Chinese Internet, government propaganda officials issued orders to local state media instructing them not to dispatch reporters to the scene and instead to rely on Xinhua and state broadcaster CCTV.
“Reporters already there must be immediately recalled. All coverage must use information released by authoritative media as the standard,” the website quoted the order as saying.
Maritime disasters in Asia are not uncommon, and some of the biggest can have political ramifications. After the MW Sewol ferry sank last year in South Korea, killing 304 passengers, many of them young students, the country’s prime minister, Jong Hong-won, accepted responsibility and resigned.
On Tuesday morning, state media quickly reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping had called for “all-out efforts in rescue work.”
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang quickly arrived at the site and was photographed all day instructing rescue crews on operations. CCTV reported that Li specifically instructed crews to cut into the hull of the overturned boat to find survivors.
The boat, the 251-foot-long Eastern Star, was carrying 456 people when it went down – 405 Chinese passengers, five travel agency employees and 46 crew members, according to Xinhua. Previously, Xinhua had said 458 people were aboard, but it revised those numbers late Tuesday.
Those rescued included the boat’s captain and chief engineer, who were taken into custody, according to CCTV, for reasons not immediately clear.
Cruising the Yangtze is a popular pastime for foreign and Chinese tourists, with many wanting to see China’s massive Three Gorges Dam and what is left of the gorges that were flooded when the dam was constructed.
The Eastern Star had started its trip Thursday from the eastern city of Nanjing and was traveling to the southwestern city of Chongqing. It sank about 9:30 p.m. Monday near Jingzhou in Hubei province.
The boat’s captain and its chief engineer reportedly told authorities the ship had been hit by a tornado and had sunk quickly. At least one survivor confirmed that the boat had gone down fast.
“It capsized within a minute,” tour guide Zhang Zhui told Xinhua from a hospital bed. Zhang said he survived by jumping through a window of the boat and holding onto debris in the water for several hours.
After initially hedging on whether a tornado had struck the area, China’s Meteorological Administration confirmed that a force 12 storm had passed through the area when the ship went down. On the Beaufort scale, force 12 is effectively hurricane force, with huge waves and winds over 72 miles per hour.
According to state media, there was no sign the tour boat was overloaded or had any record of trouble. China News Service reported the ship had been in service for nearly 20 years and could carry up to 534 people. It is one of five vessels operated by the state-owned Chongqing Wanzhou Dongfang Shipping Co.
As news of the sinking spread across China, relatives of those on board scrambled to learn of their loved ones. Chinese TV showed anguished scenes of tearful and exhausted relatives awaiting news in a Nanjing hotel.
Many in Shanghai gathered outside of the closed office of the Shanghai Xiehe travel agency, which reportedly had handled reservations for many on board. A sign on the office – which was posted on Twitter and Chinese social media – gave notice that the company’s president had traveled to the accident scene and urged people with questions to contact government authorities.
China News Service interviewed one woman, Cai Bin, who said her 67-year-old mother was on the boat but that she had been unable to find out anything from the travel agency or local officials. “We are very anxious and we still have slim hope in our heart. We need authorities’ response,” CNS reported Cai as saying.
Initial rescue work seemed to go slowly Tuesday, partly because of bad weather and also because of strong currents in the Yangtze. By afternoon, People’s Daily had reported that three bodies – presumably from the shipwreck – had been found more than 30 miles downstream in Hunan province.
At the upstream Three Gorges Dam, operators held back water to assist in the rescue efforts.
Initial local media reports suggested that as many as 30 people had been successfully rescued, but those numbers were revised later in the day.
Cruising the Yangtze is a relatively inexpensive holiday. On Tuesday, the website of the Shanghai Xiexie travel agency advertised a 13-day cruise up the Yangtze for a basic price of 1,298 yuan, or about $209.
According to People’s Daily, half of those on board the Eastern Star were over 60 years old. One of the women rescued alive Tuesday was 65.
While thunderstorms and tornadoes are uncommon in northern China, they’ve been known to strike with deadly force in southern sections of the country.
In March 2013, at least 24 people died from a reported tornado and associated thunderstorm that dropped egg-sized hailstones in Guangdong and other provinces. The storm system overturned a ferry in the southeastern province of Fujian, killing at least 11 people, according to state media.
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.