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Disaster on Chinese river as cruise ship flips over

Rescuers were able to save dozens of passengers after a severe storm capsized a cruise ship in China. Hundreds remain missing
Rescuers were able to save dozens of passenge... 01:28

BEIJING -- Rescuers pulled out survivors after hearing cries for help Tuesday from inside a capsized cruise ship on China's Yangtze River after it went down overnight in a storm with 458 people aboard, most of them elderly, state broadcaster CCTV said.

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A survivor (C-green top) is rescued by divers from the Dongfangzhixing or "Eastern Star" vessel which sank in the Yangtze river in Jianli, central China's Hubei province on June 2, 2015. STR/AFP/Getty Images

At least 22 people survived, seven of whom managed to swim ashore on their own. Six people were confirmed dead after the accident, which occurred late Monday during a cruise from Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing, the broadcaster said.

Search teams heard people calling out from within the partially submerged ship when they climbed aboard the upside-down hull, CCTV reported, more than 12 hours after the ship went down in Hubei Province at about 9:38 p.m. Monday during windy weather.

The overturned ship drifted almost two miles downstream before coming to rest close to the river shore, where choppy waters were hindering the rescue.

Rescue workers search on a sunken ship in the Jianli section of Yangtze River, Hubei province, China
Rescue workers search on a sunken ship in the Jianli section of Yangtze River, Hubei province, China, June 2, 2015. REUTERS

Footage from the broadcaster showed rescuers in orange life vests climbing on the upside-down hull, with one of them lying down tapping a hammer and listening for a response, then gesturing downward.

The Reuters news agency reported rescuers appeared to be cutting their way through the ship's upturned hull to reach those feared trapped inside.

The fact that the capsized ship drifted downstream was a good sign for rescuers because it meant there was enough air inside to give it buoyancy, and could mean there are enough air pockets for survivors to breathe, said Chi-Mo Park, a professor of naval architecture and ocean engineering at South Korea's Ulsan University.

"It all depends how much space there is inside the vessel," Park said.

The official Xinhua News Agency quoted the captain and chief engineer, who were both rescued, as saying the ship sank quickly after being caught in a cyclone. The Communist Party-run People's Daily said the ship sank within two minutes. CCTV said the two men were in police custody.

Both the captain and chief engineer were in police custody following the disaster.

CCTV said the four-level ship had been carrying 406 Chinese passengers, five travel agency employees and 47 crew members. The broadcaster said most of the passengers were 50 to 80 years of age.

Relatives of passengers gathered in Shanghai at a travel agency that had booked many of the trips, and they later headed to a government office to try to get more information about the accident.

Huang Yan, 49, an accountant in Shanghai, wept as she told a reporter she believes her husband, 49, and his father, who is in his 70s, were aboard the boat. But she said she couldn't be sure because she hadn't seen an official passenger list yet.

"Why did the captain leave the ship while the passengers were still missing?" Yan shouted. "We want the government to release the name list to see who was on the boat."

The ship sank in the Damazhou waterway section, where the river is about 50 feet deep. The Yangtze is the world's third-longest river and sometimes floods during the summer monsoon season.

Several rescue ships were searching the waters, and divers had been deployed. The broadcaster said rescue personnel were trying to determine whether they could right the sunken ship.

The channel said seven of the survivors swam to shore and alerted authorities to the sinking.

More than 50 boats and 3,000 people were involved in search efforts.

The Eastern Star measured 251 feet long and 36 feet wide and was capable of carrying a maximum of 534 people, CCTV reported. It is owned by the Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp., which focuses on tourism routes in the popular Three Gorges river canyon region. The company could not be reached for comment.

CCTV reported that 6 inches of rain had fallen in the region over the past 24 hours. Local media reported winds reached 80 mph during the accident.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is reported to be traveling to the accident site. Xinhua reported that President Xi Jinping had ordered a work team of the State Council, the country's Cabinet, to rush to the site to guide the rescue work.

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