Hundreds feared dead on riverboat “journey of no return” in China

Beijing (dpa) – Zhang Hui did not know how to swim but he floated in the stormy waters of the Yangtze River for 10 hours after a cruise ship he was travelling on along with more than 450 other people sunk Monday evening.

“It capsized within a minute,” he said from his hospital bed after being rescued.

“I told myself to hold on,” Zhang Hui told state media.

The ship, en route to south-western China’s Chongqing city after departing from Nanjing, had been caught in “freak weather,” according to the Xinhua news agency.

The China Meteorological Administration said that a strong cyclone had been detected in the area Monday evening.

Now, more than 20 hours after the ship capsized, anxious relatives fear that other passengers were unable to escape to safety.

“It is all my fault. It was me who sent them to this journey with no return,” one man cried out.

His parents were frugal their whole lives and he had paid for their boat trip as a gift, he told the state-run Global Times.

Most of thepassengers on board were senior citizens in their 60s and 70s, official state media reported.

The youngest passenger was 3 years old and the oldest was 83, Xinhua news agency said.

Only 14 of the 456 people on board had been rescued as of late Tuesday evening, Xinhua said. The oldest was a 65-year-old woman who was rescued more than 15 hours after the ship sunk, reports said.

The vessel was not overloaded and was equipped with sufficient life jackets, Xinhua cited the Ministry of Transport as saying.

Passengers’ relatives gathered Tuesday outside a Shanghai travel agency that had booked many of the trips, and then headed to a local government office to demand answers, China Central Television reported.

Desperate family members only saw a piece of paper taped to the locked door of the Xiehe Travel Agency in Shanghai. “Because of the accident on the Yangtze River, personnel have driven to the disaster site to assist in the coordination,” it read.

“Dad, Mom I was wrong, I shouldn’t have let you take the tour!” a young man cried out while lying on the floor outside the agency door, Xinmin News reported.

“We do not know what’s going on,” a man told Chinese reporters. “No one is taking responsibility.”

A similar scene happened at a travel agency in the city of Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, where relatives have waited outside locked doors since 6 a.m. Tuesday, Xinhua reported.

Other relatives complained that they had only heard about the accident from the news.

Nanjing’s tourist commission has placed dozens of relatives at a local hotel and has said it will take them to the scene of the incident.

Relatives were upset about not getting updates from authorities and some were “losing control” and crying out inside the hotel, reported.

Local media reporting on the accident appeared relatively free and wide-ranging, compared to previous accidents in China where a large number of people had gone missing.

Premier Li Keqiang asked authorities to update media with progress reports every hour.

However foreign journalists were being turned away from a small port where rescue operations were being conducted, the Guardian newspaper reported Tuesday evening.

In 2011, Chinese authorities tried to control media reporting on the collision of high-speed trains that killed 40 people and injured 190 near the eastern city of Wenzhou.

“Use the standard information provided by the authorities. Do not reflect or comment,” the Central Propaganda Department had told state media following the train crash.

That incident had triggered widespread mistrust among ordinary Chinese.

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