JIANLI, China — Chinese authorities escalated efforts to recover more than 420 people believed to be trapped inside an overturned river cruise ship Wednesday, deploying scores more divers and a large crane to possibly lift the craft.
The capsizing late Monday of the multi-decked Eastern Star in the Yangtze River in southern China is on track to become the country’s deadliest maritime disaster in seven decades. Chinese authorities have launched a high-profile response while tightly controlling media coverage.
Premier Li Keqiang, the country’s No. 2 political leader, has traveled to the disaster site in the Hubei province county of Jianli where he urged “all-out,” 24-7 efforts. Officials said the boat overturned in a severe storm with winds up to 80 mph (130 kph).
Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said the bodies of 19 victims have been pulled from the boat, floating Wednesday with a sliver of its hull jutting from the grey river water, and that 14 people had survived, some of them by swimming ashore.
But the vast majority of the 456 people on board remain missing. Many were elderly tourists taking in the scenic vistas of the Yangtze on a cruise from Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing.
The squad of 13 navy divers who searched the boat Tuesday — and pulled out three trapped survivors from air pockets after voices were heard through the hull — was expanded Wednesday to more than 180, airlifted from the provincial capital of Wuhan and from as far away as Guangzhou.
CCTV said rescuers were deciding Wednesday whether to cut into the overturned hull — an option that would imply hopes still lingered for finding survivors trapped in air pockets — or to right the ship by bringing two salvage ships to the stern and bow to act as a vise keeping the craft in place while a crane pulls it back into an upright position.
Transport Ministry spokesman Xu Chengguang said divers would continue to search the ship for as long as possible under the trying circumstances.
“Until all hope is lost and more accurate information becomes available, we will not give up on our final efforts, although I know that our colleagues at the scene are facing a great many difficulties,” Xu told reporters.
Access to the site of the site was blocked by police and paramilitary troops stationed along the Yangtze river embankment. Scores of trucks belonging to the People’s Armed Police were parked along the edge and at least two ambulances were seeing leaving the area with their lights on and sirens blaring.
Local Communist Party officials and the Foreign Ministry organized a boat trip for about four dozen journalists to a location about 100 to 200 meters (yards) from the overturned hull, where they were able to see some of the rescue work, including two men in orange life vests standing on the overturned hull.
The disaster has drawn considerable attention in Asia, and globally, and the tour was a way for normally reticent Chinese authorities to accommodate foreign media requests for access.
The rescue and salvage are being staged from a massive barge tethered a few kilometers (miles) upstream of the wreckage. Reached through a watery wasteland of flooded crops and trees torn in half by high winds, it was a bustle of activity around noon on Wednesday, as rescuers, paramilitary troops and army and navy specialists arrived and left by smaller boat.
Huang Delong, a deck hand on a car ferry crossing the Yangtze nearby, said he was working Monday evening when the weather turned nasty ahead of the ship’s capsizing about 9:30 p.m.
“From about 9 p.m. it began raining extremely hard, then the cyclone hit and the wind was really terrifying,” Huang said while crossing the broad river in a steady drizzle Tuesday afternoon.
The survivors included the ship’s captain and chief engineer, both of whom have been taken into police custody. Some relatives have questioned whether everything was done to ensure the safety of the passengers and have demanded help from local officials in Nanjing and Shanghai in unruly scenes that have drawn a heavy police response.
State media originally said there were 458 people on board, on Wednesday revised that figure to 456. CCTV said most of the passengers were 50 to 80 years old.
The Eastern Star was 251 feet (76.5 meters) long and 36 feet (11 meters) wide, and could carry 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.
China’s deadliest maritime disaster in recent decades was when the Dashun ferry caught fire and capsized off the eastern coast of Shandong province in November 1999, killing about 280. With more than 420 missing, the Eastern Star disaster could become China’s deadliest since the sinking of the SS Kiangya off Shanghai in December 1948, which is believed to have killed from anywhere from 2750 to nearly 4,000 people.
Associated Press writer Jack Chang and Ian Mader and news assistant Yu Bing in Beijing, and video journalist Helene Franchineau in Jianli contributed