Jianli: Grieving relatives of those on board the ill-fated cruise ship that capsized in the mighty Yangtze were today barred from reaching the site as rescuers pulled out more bodies, taking the death toll to 77 amid assurances from China of 'no cover up' in the probe into the tragedy.
Rescuers raced against time to cut three holes in the hull of the 'Eastern Star' in a last-ditch effort over 60 hours after it sank due to a tornado, but found no survivors as authorities prepared for another crucial operation - of lifting the ship, with nearly 400 others still missing.
"The search and rescue team will begin righting the capsized cruise ship on the Yangtze River," state-run Xinhua reported, citing the Transport Ministry. A 55 cm X 60 cm rectangular hole was made on the bottom of the vessel and rescuers continued to cut through the floating hull into sections after stabilising it with cranes while the divers combed the 76-metre ship for 379 people still missing, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said.
The sections were welded back to the hull to preserve the ship's buoyancy and balance amid fading hopes of finding more survivors among the 405 passengers, five tour guides, and 46 crew members.
Bad weather and rains have hampered rescue efforts as death toll in the mighty Yangtze, Asia's longest river, rose to 77, with another 12 bodies pulled out today, in what could become the country's worst maritime tragedy in decades. The number of survivors has not risen from 14, including the captain, since the four-storey ship carrying mostly elderly Chinese holiday-makers capsized in a freak tornado on Monday night.
Authorities have been trying to pacify angry relatives, some of whom staged a protest near the site and broke through police cordons for information.
They were being closely monitored after their arrival in the local area, and were frustrated at not being allowed to the riverbank. The Chinese government said rescuers would "take all possible measures" to save the injured and promised a "serious investigation".
"We will never shield mistakes and we'll absolutely not cover up (anything)," Xu Chengguang, Transport Ministry spokesman said, adding a preliminary investigation had begun. President Xi Jinping convened a special meeting of the ruling Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, China's highest decision-making body, this morning to discuss the rescue and ways to handle the tragedy's aftermath.
Information on the tragedy has so far been strictly- controlled and officials gave few details on the progress of the recovery efforts even as relatives of those missing remained anxious about their safety.
Premier Li Keqiang has been personally overseeing the rescue efforts in the disaster site in the central Hubei
province county of Jianli.