Rescuers searched for more than 400 missing people, many of them elderly, but hopes of finding more survivors were fading.
Only 14 people, including the ship’s captain, have been found alive since the ship capsized in a freak tornado on Monday night with 456 people on board. Just 26 bodies have been recovered.
Frustrated by the level of information coming from local authorities, about 80 family members took matters into their own hands and hired a bus to take them from Nanjing to Jianli county in Hubei. They were seen walking towards the rescue site late on Wednesday evening.
“This isn’t going to be much use, we’re just doing this for the government to see,” said Wang Feng, who organized the eight-hour bus trip, earlier on Wednesday.
Volunteers from Jianli offered rides and water to the family members, telling them “you’re good people”. Individuals supporting the family members tied yellow ribbons on their car side mirrors.
Earlier, 47 of the family members asked the government to release the names of the living and the dead to them at the rescue site, according to a statement they released.
In a separate statement, other relatives said they had “several doubts” about the incident and questions such as why most of the people rescued were crew members, why the boat did not dock, and why the captain and crew members had time to don their life vests but not sound any alarm.
State television showed rescuers, some standing gingerly on the upturned hull of the Eastern Star, and scores of divers working through the night.
Rescuers have not slackened off, even though about 200 divers face difficulties such as cabin doors blocked by tables and beds. There is also the fear that rashly cutting holes in the hull could burst air pockets keeping people alive.
“Although there’s lots of work to do, saving people is still being put first,” Transport Ministry spokesman Xu Chengguang told reporters.
Television pictures showed a rain-soaked Premier Li Keqiang, who is on the scene overseeing rescue efforts, bowing in respect to two bodies laid out on the deck of a boat covered in sheets.
“Life is greater than the heavens, and the burden on your shoulders is massive,” Li told a group of military divers, the government said in a statement.
But some relatives were already bracing for the worst.
“Yesterday I still had some hope. The boat is big and the water hadn’t gone all the way in. Now, it’s been more than 40 hours. I ask you, what do I have left?” said Wang Feng, a 35-year-old wedding photographer whose father was on the ship.
The ship was on an 11-day voyage upstream from the city of Nanjing, near Shanghai, to Chongqing.
While the People’s Daily said the ship passed inspections by authorities in Chongqing last month, in 2013 it was investigated and held by authorities due to defects, according to documents from a local maritime watchdog.
The Nanjing Maritime Safety Administration investigated Eastern Star as part of a safety campaign into passenger ferries and tour boats and held the ship along with five other vessels, according to three documents on the bureau’s website.
The documents did not give details on the nature of the defects but said the issues were reported to the Chongqing maritime safety bureau.
The search area has been expanded up to 220 km (135 miles) downstream, state television said, suggesting that bodies could have been swept far away from where the ship foundered.
UNUSUALLY BAD WEATHER
Zou Luwang, who lives near the river, said the government called residents to warn of extreme weather on the night the ship capsized.
“I believe those who operate the boats have expertise about this, but the weather was unusually bad for these parts,” he told Reuters.
Zhang Hui, a tour guide who survived the disaster, told the official Xinhua news agency that it was raining so hard, water was seeping through cabin windows, and that the ship then listed violently.
“I thought, ‘this isn’t right’, and I told my colleague, ‘I think we’re in trouble’. After I said that, the ship flipped over. It only took 30 seconds or a minute,” Zhang said.
Li Yongjun, captain of a freighter that passed near the Eastern Star shortly before it capsized, told Xinhua the weather was so bad he decided to anchor and wait out the storm.
He said he heard a voice from the river crying, “Help!” just after 10 p.m. (1200 GMT), about 30 minutes after state media has said the Eastern Star capsized.
“The rain was just too heavy, there was no way to mount a rescue, so I shouted over, ‘swim to the bank!’,” Li said.
DISTRAUGHT RELATIVES PROTEST
The captain and chief engineer have been detained by police for questioning. An initial investigation found the ship was not overloaded and had enough life vests on board.
The ship overturned “within one or two minutes”, Xinhua quoted the captain as saying. He was dragged out of the water near a pier just before midnight on Monday.
Relatives of the missing, angry at what they perceive as a lack of information, have scuffled with officials in Shanghai.
China’s weather bureau said a tornado buffeted the area where the ship was cruising, a freak occurrence in a country where twisters can happen but are uncommon.
Accidents of this magnitude are uncommon in China. State media said it was the worst recorded ship disaster on the Yangtze River. In 1948, the steamship Kiangya blew up on the Huangpu river, killing more than 1,000 people.