Hundreds missing after ship capsizes on China's Yangtze River

Rescuers are fighting bad weather as they search for over 400 people after a boat capsized in China.

FILE: An inflatable boat capsizes in the Mediterranean Sea, killing forty migrants. Fifty-five were rescued. Picture: CNN.

JIANLI COUNTY, CHINA - Rescuers searched on Tuesday for more than 400 people, many of them elderly Chinese tourists, missing after a cruise boat was hit by a freak tornado and capsized on the Yangtze River in what may become China's worst shipping disaster in nearly 70 years.

Battling bad weather, divers and other rescue workers pulled five people they found trapped in the upturned hull of the four-deck Eastern Star, a small fraction of the 458 people state media said were on board when the ship capsized on Monday night.

Rescue operations appeared extended late into Tuesday night with paramilitary vehicles, dozens of police and soldiers as well as medical and meteorological trucks surrounding the site.

Soldiers set up periodic roadblocks along a muddy path, allowing only official vehicles into the area in the central province of Hubei.

At the main hospital in the county of Jianli, police guarded the door of a room where survivors were being treated and blocked reporters from trying to enter. Three survivors were placed in the general ward while the rest were in intensive care, according to a nurse.

Distraught relatives of some of the passengers scuffled with officials in the city of Shanghai, where many of those on board had booked their trips, angry about what they said was a lack of information.

Dozens of rescue boats battled wind and rain enveloping the southern section of Asia's longest river to reach the ship, which lay upturned in water some 15 metres (50 feet) deep.

Xinhua news agency said rescuers could hear people calling for help from inside the ship's hull and television showed rescuers cutting through it with an angle grinder.

One of the people pulled from the capsized boat was a 65-year-old woman. Divers fixed breathing equipment to her nose and mouth to bring her up from under the water.

About another dozen people had been rescued and six bodies recovered, Chinese media reported, leaving more than 430 people unaccounted for.

China's weather bureau said a tornado had buffeted the area where the boat was passing through, a freak occurrence in a country where twisters can happen but are not common.

The disaster could cause a higher toll than the sinking of a ferry in South Korea in April 2014 that killed 304 people, most of them children on a school trip.

China's People's Daily published a passenger manifest on its microblog and said those on board the Eastern Star ranged in age from three to more than 80.

Tour guide Zhang Hui, 43, told Xinhua that the boat sank very fast and he scrambled out a window in torrential rain, clutching a life vest as he could not swim.

"Wave after wave crashed over me; I swallowed a lot of water," Zhang said. He was unable to flag down passing boats and finally struggled ashore, clinging to a branch, as dawn broke.

President Xi Jinping had ordered that no efforts be spared in the rescue and Premier Li Keqiang went to the scene of the accident, Xinhua said.

About 60 family members gathered outside a travel agency in Shanghai and demanded information.