BEIJING — Divers battled submerged debris and crews sliced into the upturned hull of a Chinese cruise liner Wednesday in a last-ditch hunt for survivors two days after the ship capsized with 456 people aboard.
Just 14 people are known to have survived the disaster on the Yangtze River. At least 19 bodies have been recovered, leaving more than 420 people unaccounted for — most of whom were retirement-age tourists on an 11-day cruise.
Under the river, a tumble of beds, tables and chairs blocked access for divers inside the capsized Eastern Star. Some cabin doors also were locked, officials said, making the job of finding survivors and retrieving bodies significantly harder.
Atop the hull, rescue teams began cutting through the metal in an attempt to find anyone who might be trapped in air pockets, the official People’s Daily reported.
Amid the search, questions emerged about whether the boat, which had four decks and a relatively shallow draft, had been sufficiently stable to withstand stormy weather. Also facing scrutiny was its captain, who continued the cruise as rain and winds intensified Monday night — even while other vessels dropped anchor.
The captain and his chief engineer were among the first to be rescued. Police are questioning them.
But the Chinese government, ever wary that public outrage could be turned against the authorities, attempted to control the narrative. Officials discouraged local journalists from visiting the scene and tried to prevent foreign journalists from speaking to passengers’ relatives.
China’s Internet police issued warnings against those who sought to point fingers or spread malicious rumors online. Censors deleted critical comments on social media.
The government’s main focus, however, remained on the rescue effort, with nearly 2,000 workers, more than 100 boats and 200 divers deployed in what could be China’s worst ship-related disaster in nearly seven decades.
Helicopters and planes scoured the waters of the Yangtze, as the search area expanded to 135 miles downstream.
Transport Ministry spokesman Xu Chengguang said divers would continue searching for survivors and would try to move the vessel only when more salvage boats arrived.
“Our number one priority is to rescue people,” he said at a televised news conference. “As long as there is a glimmer of hope, we will not give up.”
But Xu said strong currents, wind and waves made the job harder. Sand and mud kicked up by the storm reduced visibility underwater.
Diver Zhang Hucheng said he and his colleagues stayed underwater for an hour at a time.
“Now we are completely relying on our hands to search,” he told the official Xinhua News Agency. “Even though we have strong torchlights, the river water is very muddy. We can’t see anything.”
Two people, including a 65-year-old woman, were brought out alive from air pockets inside the vessel Tuesday, after rescuers apparently heard voices yelling for help.
Xinhua showed images of bodies in yellow bags being ferried away by military rescue workers.
Premier Li Keqiang, the Communist Party’s point man in disasters, was photographed bowing before two bodies covered in white shrouds, while holding an umbrella against the rain.
Li has also been photographed poring over maps, directing rescue workers and meeting survivors, to demonstrate, in the words of officials, how genuinely the government “cares for the people.”
According to China Digital Times, a Web site dedicated to detailing media censorship, the government issued a directive to domestic news organizations not to send reporters to the scene and instead to rely on official media.
“Reporters already there must be immediately recalled,” the directive said. “All coverage must use information released by authoritative media as the standard.”
Nevertheless, some reporters from outside the state mouthpieces turned up, according to foreign journalists in the area.
In 2011, ordinary citizens and journalists used social media to break news of a high-speed train crash in the eastern city of Wenzhou in which 40 people died and ask uncomfortable questions about safety.
The resulting investigation saw powerful heads roll in China’s Railways Ministry, which was subsequently dismantled. Ever since, the Communist Party has dramatically cracked down on freedom of speech online.
On Wednesday, Internet police in the central province of Hubei, where the disaster occurred, denounced “lawless people who ignore the truth, maliciously spread rumors online and even send out scam texts to families of the victims.”
On a social media account, it vowed to punish anyone who made up rumors.
Internet police in the northeastern city of Shenyang said only people with “ulterior motives” or who were “dead evil” would want to point fingers at a time when the nation should be focused on the recovery effort.
Some social media posts — later deleted by authorities — criticized the effort to control news reporting. Others complained that the commander of the Eastern Star had deserted his sinking ship.
“The captain and crew members displayed 100 times better escaping skills than the passengers,” one user posted on a microblogging site. “The captain is so professional he escaped unscathed.”
On Tuesday, angry relatives of the passengers gathered at a government office in Shanghai — from where many of the passengers had booked the tour — and demanded more information, some briefly scuffling with officials, according to the Reuters news agency.
Many relatives were taken Wednesday to the rescue site at Jianli in central Hubei province and briefed by officials.
One of those aboard the ship was Gao Qianyue, who had just celebrated her third birthday and was taking her first boat trip with her newly retired grandparents.
“She is only 3 years old, and now she is soaked in water — please save her first,” the girl’s mother cried, according to local media, before pointing at her husband.
“The three people he is closest to — his mom, his dad and his daughter — are all on the boat, with their life uncertain. What is he going to do? What should we do?”
In Shanghai, Wang Sheng said he had paid for his 72-year-old father and 65-year-old mother to take the cruise to see the Three Gorges Dam but regretted he had not gone along.
“My mom was reluctant to go,” he cried, according to Xinhua. “If only I had gone with my father. At least I am young and strong, and I can swim. Maybe I could even have saved him. I am so sorry.”
Meanwhile, attention turned to the safety of the Eastern Star, a 251-foot-long and 36-foot-wide vessel, especially in stormy weather.
“Our shipbuilding and design have not taken into consideration extreme weather conditions such as storms and tornadoes when building ships used for inland rivers,” said Liu Shuguang, deputy director in the College of Economics at the Ocean University of China in Qingdao.
“The capsized boat has a quite shallow bottom but is very high. It is only suitable for calm and tranquil weather conditions,” Liu added.
But the possibility of human error playing a role also appeared to grow, after local media reported that three other ships nearby dropped anchor as the storm intensified.
“The visibility was terrible, like being in fog, and the rain was interfering with the radar so you couldn’t make anything out,” Li Yongjun, the captain of another freighter, told Xinhua.
Li said he decided to slow down, drop anchor and wait out the storm. As he did so, the Eastern Star passed his ship and continued upriver.
Gu Jinglu, Liu Liu and Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.