BEIJING — As wind and rain lashed the Eastern Star cruise ship on Monday night, and lightning illuminated the sky, 43-year-old tour guide Zhang Hui was making his way back to his cabin.
It was just before 9:30 p.m., and many of the elderly members of his tour group had gone to bed. Suddenly, the storm on the Yangtze River transformed into a freak tornado. Water started seeping into rooms, even through closed windows, Zhang recalled. Then, the boat listed 45 degrees, sending bottles skidding off tables and onto the floor.
“It looks like we have run into big trouble,” he told a colleague, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. He had barely uttered the words when the boat listed again. Zhang had an instant to grab a life jacket and tumble out the window, as furniture and blankets hurtled toward him.
Zhang was one of just 14 people, out of the 456 aboard, known to have survived what appears to be China’s worst shipping disaster in seven decades. More than 24 hours after the Eastern Star overturned, seven bodies had been recovered and more than 430 people remained unaccounted for, authorities said.
About 180 navy divers were joined by more than 110 rescue boats and six helicopters on Tuesday night, battling wind, rain and darkness to look for anyone who might be clinging to life.
After jumping out the window, Zhang, who cannot swim, saw several people in the waters around him — pleading for help.
“I was submerged by one wave after another, and I drank a lot of water,” he told Xinhua from his hospital bed. “The raindrops hitting my face felt like hailstones.”
At one point, another ship passed by, but its crew did not see him. “I told myself, it’ll be fine if I just hang in there a little longer,” he said.
Zhang ended up drifting more than 50 miles downstream over the course of 10 hours before he rowed his way to shore at daybreak using tree branches.
State radio said the four-decked ship overturned in just two minutes in a sudden tornado and did not issue a distress call. The alarm was raised only when a handful of survivors swam ashore.
The captain of the vessel and the chief engineer were among the first to be rescued and were being questioned by police.
State television showed rescue workers in orange jackets standing in the upturned hull of the ship. One was shown hammering on the hull, before pressing his ear to the rusty metal to listen for replies.
Another worker used a power tool in an attempt to cut through the hull to reach people trapped in an air pocket, who were reported to have been calling for help, according to state media.
State media showed photographs of Premier Li Keqiang at the scene, apparently giving instructions to rescue workers.
The instructions — from both Li and from President Xi Jinping — “have fully shown how the party and government care for the public, and how the government puts the people’s interest above everything else,” Transport Minister Yang Chuantang said at a televised news conference.
About 18 hours after the ship capsized, navy divers rescued a 65-year-old woman from deep inside its bowels, teaching her how to use breathing equipment before bringing her to the surface, as Li looked on.
The death toll seemed likely to surpass that of the April 2014 sinking of a ferry in South Korea, when 304 people, most of them children, drowned.
This is also likely to go down as the worst shipping disaster in China since the steamship Kiangya blew up on the Huangpu River in southeastern China in 1948, killing more than 1,000 people.
Most passengers on the Eastern Star were ages 50 to 80, state media reported. They were on an organized 11-day cruise along the Yangtze, Asia’s longest river, and its famous Three Gorges region.
Xinhua said initial investigations established that the ship, licensed to carry 534 people, was not overloaded and that it had enough life jackets. Experts said China’s maritime safety record was relatively good, and regulations were further beefed up after the South Korean disaster.
Extreme weather appeared to be the main culprit: China’s weather bureau said a small but intense tornado, lasting about 15 or 20 minutes, swept across the river as the ship passed.
“There were life vests in prominent positions in every room, and the boat was open style,” Zhang said, according to Xinhua. “If it hadn’t capsized so fast, more people would have been saved.”
Nevertheless, questions remained over why the vessel capsized so suddenly and why the captain had apparently left his sinking ship so swiftly.
Angry relatives of those aboard the ship gathered in Shanghai, from where many of the passengers had booked the tour. Some of the relatives briefly scuffled with officials over what they deemed a lack of communication, the news agency Reuters reported.
Among them was Huang Yan, a 49-year-old accountant, who said she thinks her husband and father were on the ship.
“Why did the captain leave the ship while the passengers were still missing?” she shouted, according to the Associated Press.
Chutian Metropolis Daily, a local newspaper, reported that another tourist boat had been cruising the same section of the river on Monday night but had decided to stop for the night near Hubei province after encountering bad weather. The Eastern Star had carried on.
Ship-positioning data showed that the vessel had changed direction about 10 minutes before capsizing, the business magazine Caixin and state media reported, raising questions about whether that maneuver had contributed to the disaster.
Crew member Liu Yiqing, 43, was in charge of repairing and maintaining electric circuits and electronic equipment on the boat but had disembarked May 24 after his father was hospitalized. The decision probably saved Liu’s life.
“At first, I really couldn’t believe that such a disaster would happen to the people around me,” he told Xinhua. “They were my brother and sisters, and we ate together only a few days ago. We work together all year round and have very deep affection for each other. It is so painful.”
The boat sank in 50 feet of water, about 110 miles west of Hubei’s capital, Wuhan, and about 700 miles south of Beijing.
Gu Jinglu and Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.