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Thursday, June 4, 2015, 19:29

CPC calls for sustained rescue, toll 77

By Zhao Huanxin and Zhao Yinan in Jianli, Hubei, and Wang Xiaodong in Beijing
CPC calls for sustained rescue, toll 77
With the hope of finding more survivors, rescue workers start to cut a hole in the bottom of the capsized Eastern Star in the Jianli section of the Yangtze River in Hubei province on June 3, 2015. (Li Xi / Hubei Daily)

The death toll in a ship that capsized on China's Yangtze River has risen to 77 as of 6 pm Thursday, China's state broadcaster CCTV News reported, and more than 360 people are still missing.

Chinese authorities started righting the capsized Eastern Star around 8 pm, state news agency Xinhua said, citing the transport ministry. The operation will last about 5 hours.

Rescuers pulled out 51 bodies from the ship Thursday, bringing the toll to 77, Jianli county chief Huang Zhen told reporters.

They were brought to the Jianli's Rongcheng Crematorium, in Hubei province, where at least two relatives tried to identify them. Jianli city has provided free accommodation for families of victims.

Only 14 survivors, including the captain, have been found since ship carrying 456 people capsized in a freak tornado on Monday night, in what could be China's worst shipping disaster in almost 70 years.

President Xi Jinping and other senior Communist Party of China (CPC) leaders have called on rescuers to "take all possible measures" to save lives from the capsized cruiser ship.

They also demanded serious investigation into the cause of the incident.

Rescuers have opened three holes in the hull of the Eastern Star to reach people who could still be alive in the ship.

Three salvage ships were preparing to get the Eastern Star out of the 15-meter-deep water, the ministry said.

The search efforts were to continue through the night, said Xu Chengguang, a spokesman for the ministry.

Rescuers have expanded their search for survivors to 220 kilometers downstream.

The water near the ship is murky, impeding the rescue effort, Xu said.

When the ship capsized, objects inside were tossed about and could now block passages, complicating the underwater rescue, he said.

The Eastern Star capsized near Jianli in Central China's Hubei province at 9:28 pm on Monday.

The sightseeing ship was headed from Nanjing in eastern China to Chongqing when it encountered a heavy storm. It turned upside down almost instantly, according to the ship's captain and chief engineer, who have been detained by police for investigation.

The China Meteorological Administration confirmed on Tuesday that there had been a tornado in the area at the time of the accident with wind speeds exceeding 115 km/h.

Premier Li Keqiang urged an all-out rescue effort on Wednesday when he visited rescuers at the site. He also paid tribute to several dead passengers.

"As long as there is the slightest hope, we must go all out to find the missing. It's our obligation," he said.

Li and other senior officials called for government departments on Tuesday to mobilize all necessary resources and provide maximum support for the rescue. He also demanded a thorough investigation.

CPC calls for sustained rescue, toll 77
Rescue personnel wrap the body of a passenger who was travelling on the capsized Eastern Star in the Yangtze River at Jianli in China's Hubei province on June 3, 2015. (PHOTO / AFP)

One of the few survivors is 43-year-old tour agency employee Zhang Hui, who managed to escape with a life jacket as the ship was flipping over.

Zhu Hongmei, a 65-year-old woman who was trapped in an air pocket under the hull, was rescued on Tuesday after she was found by a diver who guided her out.

As thousands of rescuers, reporters and relatives of ship passengers flock to Jianli, the county of about 1.6 million people is facing mounting pressure on accommodations and traffic.

Chen Liang, who runs the Qianxi Hotel, offered 20 of the facility's 30 rooms for free to relatives and friends of the passengers trapped in the ship. The other 10 rooms are reserved for search and rescue workers, he said.

"I don't have more room to offer," Chen said. "But my hotel can provide free meals to anyone who can show themselves to be a rescuer or a relative of a passenger."

At least 150 taxis and private cars were offering them free rides. Yellow ribbons were tied onto the vehicles - a sign of a volunteer that appeared during the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008.

Liu Kun contributed to this story.

With agency inputs.

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