A massive rescue effort is currently underway to find anyone who survived the capsizing of the Eastern Star, which overturned on the Yangtze River during a storm Monday night with 458 people aboard, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
The ship was on a pleasure cruise along a stretch of the Yangtze that winds through central China's Hubei province when it was caught in a cyclone, causing it to sink within two minutes. Over 24 hours after the Evening Star capsized, only 15 survivors and five bodies had been recovered as rescuers battled darkness and intermittent rain, CNN reported.
One of the survivors, Zhang Hui, told Xinhau, China's state-run news agency that most of the ship's passengers were sleeping when the storm hit.
"Looks like we are in trouble," he remembers telling a colleague before grabbing a life jacket and plunging into the dark waters of the river during the middle of the storm.
"The raindrops hitting my face felt like hailstones. I tried to hold my breath, but water was forced into my mouth anyway," he told Xinhau, recalling how he eventually floated ashore while clinging to his life jacket.
The AP reports that while some survivors swam ashore, others were rescued more than 12 hours after the ship went down, after search teams climbed aboard the capsized boat and heard people screaming inside.
The survivors included the ship's captain and chief engineer, who were taken into custody for questioning.
Most of those on board were tourists aged between 50 and 80 travelling from the eastern city of Nanjing to Chongqing in the south-west - a journey of at least 1,500km (930 miles). According to state broadcaster CCTV, the four-level ship had been carrying 406 Chinese passengers, five travel agency employees and 47 crew members.
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 among those on the boat. She expressed anger that an official passenger list had not yet been released and criticized the ship's captain for failing to send out a distress signal.
"Why did the captain leave the ship while the passengers were still missing?" Huang shouted. "We want the government to release the name list to see who was on the boat."
The capsizing of the Eastern Star comes a year after the sinking of the South Korean passenger ferry Sewol, which claimed the lives of over 300 people, most of them high school students.The captain of that ship was convicted of murder in April and sentenced to life in prison. CNN notes that unless many more people are rescued, the Yangtze River sinking will become the deadliest passenger ship disaster in Asia since the Sewol went down.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is reported to be traveling to the accident site. Xinhua reported that President Xi Jinping had ordered a work team of the State Council, the country's Cabinet, to rush to the site to guide the rescue work.