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China ship death toll rises to 65

Rescue workers carry a boat as they conduct a search, after a ship sank in the Jianli section of the Yangtze River

Beijing:  The death toll from a Chinese cruise ship that capsized in the mighty Yangtze river rose to 65 as divers pulled out 39 bodies today after cutting the hull of the overturned vessel, even as grieving families of over 370 unaccounted passengers became restive over the delay.

Rescuers have cut a 55 cm by 60 cm rectangular hole on the bottom of the overturned ship, Eastern Star, in a desperate measure to give divers easier access to the hull.

The rescuers will continue to cut through the hull while the divers comb the 76-metre ship for more than 370 people still missing, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Only 14 survivors, including the captain, have been found since the four-storey ship carrying 456 people, mostly elderly Chinese holiday makers, capsized in a freak tornado on Monday, in what could be China’s worst shipping disaster in decades.

Rescuers retrieved another 39 bodies till this morning, bringing the death toll to 65.

Premier Li Keqiang travelled to the disaster site in the central Hubei province county of Jianli to monitor the rescue efforts.

But information about the accident has been strictly controlled and officials gave few details on the progress of the recovery efforts.

Meanwhile anxious relatives of the passengers missing after the mishap became restive, as four days have passed and wanted to go to the site of the shipwreck.

About 80 family members wanted to hire a bus and go from Nanjing to Jianli, where the ship sank but were prevented by security officials.

In Shanghai, some grieving families even clashed with authorities, demanding answers.

Questions remain over why the ship made a sudden turn 10 minutes before capsizing and whether a tornado recorded in the area at the time of the accident had directly hit the ship, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported.

The ship’s captain and chief engineer, who both survived, are in police custody.

“If the voyage data recorder [the black box of the ship] shows the captain made the turn in the stormy weather instead of losing control [after the ship was hit by strong winds and tides], it would be fair to say he bears responsibility for the tragedy,” Professor You Qinghua, from Shanghai Maritime University was quoted as saying by the Post.

Chen Yuanjian, a director of the ship’s operator, a Chongqing company called Dongfang, admitted the ship’s structure had been modified.

He said this was done only to meet updated standards from the shipping authorities, news website The Paper reported.

The ship was carrying 405 passengers, five tour guides, and 46 crew members.

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