BEIJING (DPA) — A passenger ship with more than 450 people on board has sunk in China's Yangtze River during a heavy storm, Chinese state media reported early Tuesday.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 15 people out of the 458 people on board have been rescued, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Those rescued included the captain and the chief engineer.
All those rescued were wearing life jackets, according to the ministry.
Five bodies had been recovered and confirmed dead so far, according to reports.
The ship was not overloaded and was equipped with sufficient life jackets, Xinhua cited the Ministry of Transport as saying.
The ship sank around 9:30 pm Monday (1330 GMT) near Jianli in Hubei province, Xinhua reported.
Most of the passengers on board were senior citizens in their sixties and seventies, Xinhua said, with the ages of passengers ranging from 3 to 83.
The ship capsized when it was caught in a tornado, reports said.
The incident happened "so fast that the captain did not even have the time to send out a distress signal," Xinhua cited Wang Yangsheng, a senior official with the Yueyang Maritime Rescue Center, as saying.
The rescue center in Yueyang in neighboring Hunan Province received an alarm call from the crew of another boat who saw two people in the water at 10:10 pm, Xinhua reported.
The center immediately sent a patrol boat to the scene and the two survivors were picked up at 11:51 pm.
One of the survivors told rescuers he was the captain of the boat, Xinhua reported.
Hubei's provincial emergency office confirmed Tuesday afternoon that a tornado was detected in the area between 9 pm and 10 pm Monday, Hubei's Jing Chu newspaper reported.
The section of the river where the accident occurred is a place where strong storms are known to occur, the newspaper said.
Emergency response efforts were earlier hindered by strong wind and heavy rain, Xinhua said.
Premier Li Keqiang arrived Tuesday afternoon to supervise rescue work along with two other senior officials. More than 1,000 armed police officers had also been dispatched to the scene.
President Xi Jinping called for "all-out rescue efforts" and better safety measures, Xinhua reported.
The ship was en route to south-western China's Chongqing city after departing from Nanjing, the capital of the eastern province of Jiangsu, on Thursday. The two cities are some 1,200 kilometres apart as the crow flies.
The ship was carrying more than 400 passengers – referred to as Chinese tourists in state media – 47 crew members and five travel agency workers. Built in 1994, it had a capacity of more than 500 passengers.
Passengers' relatives gathered Tuesday outside a Shanghai travel agency that had booked many of the trips and then headed to a local government office looking for answers, China Central Television reported.
Most of those onboard are from Shanghai and neighboring Jiangsu Province, according to Xinhua.
Three survivors, aged 37, 42 and 50, are being treated in hospital.
The depth of the water at the scene of the accident is about 15 metres, China News reported.
Hubei is home to the massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. The dam has limited water flow to assist in rescue work, Xinhua reported.
(Reporting by Andreas Landwehr)
(Reporting by Andreas Landwehr)