China starts righting capsized ship as divers find no signs of life

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Chinese authorities began late on Thursday to right a cruise ship that capsized on the Yangtze River, after divers sent to search for survivors found no signs of life inside.

With only 14 survivors found, including the captain and chief engineer, since the ship carrying 456 people overturned during a freak tornado on Monday night, the rescue mission has now become an operation to recover hundreds of bodies.

"In a situation in which the overall judgment is that there is no chance of people being alive, we could start the work of righting the boat," transport ministry spokesman Xu Chengguang told a news conference.

State television confirmed that the righting operation had begun. That would allow rescuers to "search for the missing persons in the shortest possible time," state news agency Xinhua said, citing the transport ministry, adding that it would also "give maximum protection to the dignity of the deceased."

Rescue workers had "groped under the water" and cut into the hull, Xinhua said, and more than 200 divers searched all the cabins of the ship but did not find any survivors.

Workers cut into three regions in the hull that were "important escape channels" and found "no signs of life", Xinhua said.

"We are already mentally prepared," said a woman surnamed Gao, 33, whose 58-year-old mother was on board the ship.

Earlier, the ruling Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of power in the country, held a special meeting convened by President Xi Jinping.

The committee called on local authorities to take measures to help grieving families and to "earnestly safeguard social stability".

Frustrated by the scarcity of information, about 50 grieving relatives hired a bus to bring them on the eight-hour journey from Nanjing - where the cruise had originated - to Jianli county in Hubei where the incident happened.

Hundreds of people, their eyes brimming with tears, knelt in the center of a square in Jianli city clutching candles and flowers.

On Wednesday night, dozens of them broke through a police cordon and headed to the disaster site.

Hu Kaihong, a government spokesman, said at a news briefing that there were now more than 1,200 family members in Jianli.

Relatives have asked the government to release the names of survivors and the 77 people confirmed to have died so far, and questioned why most of those rescued were crew members.

Some demanded to know why the boat did not dock in the storm, and how the rescued captain and crew members had had time to put on life vests but did not sound any alarm.

Beijing has pledged that there would be "no cover-up" of an investigation.

Police have detained the captain and chief engineer for questioning. An initial investigation found the ship was not overloaded and had enough life vests on board.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Campbell and Engen Tham; Writing by Ben Blanchard, Kazunori Takada and Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Paul Tait and Robin Pomeroy)

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Boat sinks in China with 450 people aboard
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China starts righting capsized ship as divers find no signs of life
JINGZHOU, CHINA - JUNE 05: (CHINA OUT) Rescuers work to raise the capsized ship Dongfangzhixing in the Yangtze River on June 5, 2015 in Jingzhou, China. Fourteen people have been rescued and 331 are confirmed dead after a passenger ship named Dongfangzhixing (Eastern Star) carrying 458 people sank in the Jianli (Hubei Province) section of the Yangtze River on Monday. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
MIANYANG, CHINA - JUNE 07: (CHINA OUT) People light candles to mourn victims onboard Chinese cruise Eastern Star near Fujiang River on June 7, 2015 in Mianyang, Sichuan Province of China. The death toll of the capsized cruise Eastern Star reached 406 on Sunday, leaving 36 still missing and 14 survived. Sunday marks the seventh day since the cruise sunk and it is a key date to mourn the dead according to Chinese tradition. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
LIAOCHENG, CHINA - JUNE 07: (CHINA OUT) Students from Liaocheng University light candles to mourn victims onboard Chinese cruise Eastern Star at Liaocheng University on June 7, 2015 in Liaocheng, Shandong Province of China. The death toll of the capsized cruise Eastern Star reached 406 on Sunday, leaving 36 still missing and 14 survived. Sunday marks the seventh day since the cruise sunk and it is a key date to mourn the dead according to Chinese tradition. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
JINGZHOU, CHINA - JUNE 07: (CHINA OUT) Rescue workers attend a moment of silence for three minutes at a ceremony to mark the seventh day since the Eastern Star went down in the Jianli section of Yangtze River on June 7, 2015 in Jianli County of Jingzhou, Hubei Province of China. The death toll of the capsized cruise Eastern Star reached 406 on Sunday, leaving 36 still missing and 14 survived. Sunday marks the seventh day since the cruise sunk and it is a key date to mourn the dead according to Chinese tradition. (Photo by Chen Zhuo/Yangtze River Daily/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
MIANYANG, CHINA - JUNE 07: (CHINA OUT) People light candles to mourn victims onboard Chinese cruise Eastern Star near Fujiang River on June 7, 2015 in Mianyang, Sichuan Province of China. The death toll of the capsized cruise Eastern Star reached 406 on Sunday, leaving 36 still missing and 14 survived. Sunday marks the seventh day since the cruise sunk and it is a key date to mourn the dead according to Chinese tradition. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
JINGZHOU, CHINA - JUNE 07: (CHINA OUT) Rescue workers attend a moment of silence for three minutes at a ceremony to mark the seventh day since the Eastern Star went down in the Jianli section of Yangtze River on June 7, 2015 in Jianli County of Jingzhou, Hubei Province of China. The death toll of the capsized cruise Eastern Star reached 406 on Sunday, leaving 36 still missing and 14 survived. Sunday marks the seventh day since the cruise sunk and it is a key date to mourn the dead according to Chinese tradition. (Photo by Chen Zhuo/Yangtze River Daily/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
JINGZHOU, CHINA - JUNE 05: (CHINA OUT) Rescuers work to raise the capsized ship Dongfangzhixing in the Yangtze River on June 5, 2015 in Jingzhou, China. Fourteen people have been rescued and 331 are confirmed dead after a passenger ship named Dongfangzhixing (Eastern Star) carrying 458 people sank in the Jianli (Hubei Province) section of the Yangtze River on Monday. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
Rescue workers look at the sunken passenger ship as it is lifted by cranes in the Yangtze river in Jianli in China's Hubei province on June 5, 2015. Relatives of passengers missing after a Chinese cruise ship capsized expressed agony and anger after an official admitted there is no hope of finding more survivors. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
Rescue workers look at the sunken passenger ship being lifted by cranes in the Yangtze river in Jianli in China's Hubei province on June 5, 2015. Relatives of passengers missing after a Chinese cruise ship capsized expressed agony and anger after an official admitted there is no hope of finding more survivors. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
A foot of a dead body (bottom-C-L) is seen inside the sunken passenger ship as it is lifted by cranes in the Yangtze river in Jianli in China's Hubei province on June 5, 2015. Relatives of passengers missing after a Chinese cruise ship capsized expressed agony and anger after an official admitted there is no hope of finding more survivors. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
Rescue workers rest next to empty stretchers on the river bank next to the turned around capsized passenger ship as it is lifted by cranes in the Yangtze river in Jianli in China's Hubei province on June 5, 2015. Relatives of passengers missing after a Chinese cruise ship capsized expressed agony and anger after an official admitted there is no hope of finding more survivors. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on June 3, 2015 shows rescuers carrying the bodies of the victims of the capsized Chinese cruise ship walking on the riverbank in Jianli, central China's Hubei province. Relatives of more than 400 people missing after the cruise ship 'Eastern Star' capsized on China's Yangtze river gathered at the disaster site on June 4, as rescuers breached the hull in a last-ditch search for more than 400 people believed trapped inside. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on June 3, 2015 shows rescuers carrying the bodies of the victims of the capsized Chinese cruise ship walking on the riverbank in Jianli, central China's Hubei province. Relatives of more than 400 people missing after the cruise ship 'Eastern Star' capsized on China's Yangtze river gathered at the disaster site on June 4, as rescuers breached the hull in a last-ditch search for more than 400 people believed trapped inside. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
ZHUJI, CHINA - JUNE 03: (CHINA OUT) Students light candles and pray for victims of the capsized ship Dongfangzhixing at a high school on June 3, 2015 in Zhuji, China. Fourteen people have been rescued and seven are confirmed dead after a passenger ship named Dongfangzhixing (Eastern Star) carrying 458 people sank in the Jianli (Hubei Province) section of the Yangtze River on Monday. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)
This photo taken on June 3, 2015 shows rescuers carrying the body of a recovered victim of the capsized Chinese cruise ship in Jianli, central China's Hubei province. Relatives of more than 400 people missing after the cruise ship 'Eastern Star' capsized on China's Yangtze river gathered at the disaster site on June 4, as rescuers breached the hull in a last-ditch search for more than 400 people believed trapped inside. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on June 3, 2015 shows a relative (R) of a passenger - missing after a Chinese cruise ship capsized on the Yangtze river - wiping away tears as relatives gather at the disaster site in Jianli, in central China's Hubei province. Relatives of more than 400 people missing after the cruise ship 'Eastern Star' capsized on China's Yangtze river gathered at the disaster site on June 4, as rescuers breached the hull in a last-ditch search for more than 400 people believed trapped inside. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on June 3, 2015 shows two relatives looking on towards the disaster site of the sank vessel 'Eastern Star' in Jianli, central China's Hubei province. Relatives of more than 400 people missing after the cruise ship 'Eastern Star' capsized on China's Yangtze river gathered at the disaster site on June 4, as rescuers breached the hull in a last-ditch search for more than 400 people believed trapped inside. AFP PHOTO CHINA OUT (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
JINGZHOU, CHINA - JUNE 02: (CHINA OUT) Rescuers search for survivors from the capsized ship Dongfangzhixing in the Yangtze River on June 2, 2015 in Nanjing, China. A passenger ship named Dongfangzhixing (Eastern Star) carrying 458 people, including 406 Chinese passengers, 5 travel agency workers and 47 crew members aboard, according to the administration, sank at around 9:28 p.m. on Monday in the Jianli (Hubei Province) section of the Yangtze River. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)
JINGZHOU, CHINA - JUNE 02: (CHINA OUT) Rescuers search for survivors from the capsized ship Dongfangzhixing in the Yangtze River on June 2, 2015 in Jingzhou, China. A passenger ship named Dongfangzhixing (Eastern Star) carrying 458 people, including 406 Chinese passengers, 5 travel agency workers and 47 crew members aboard, according to the administration, sank at around 9:28 p.m. on Monday in the Jianli (Hubei Province) section of the Yangtze River. According to officials 15 people have been rescued with hundreds still missing. The captain and the chief engineer both survived and claimed that the ship sank quickly after being caught in a cyclone. Chinese President Xijinping has ordered a work team of the State Council to rush to the site to guide search and rescue work and rescue teams of Hubei, Chongqing and relevant parties to carry out all-search efforts and properly handle the aftermath. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)
JINGZHOU, CHINA - JUNE 03: (CHINA OUT) Rescuers carry victims' bodies from the capsized ship Dongfangzhixing in the Yangtze River on June 3, 2015 in Jingzhou, China. Fourteen people have been rescued and seven are confirmed dead after a passenger ship named Dongfangzhixing (Eastern Star) carrying 458 people sank in the Jianli (Hubei Province) section of the Yangtze River on Monday. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
Rescue personnel move the remains of victims who were travelling on the capsized passenger ship Dongfangzhixing or 'Eastern Star' onto a boat in the Yangtze river at Jianli in China's Hubei province on June 3, 2015. Relatives of more than 400 people missing after a cruise ship capsized on China's Yangtze river were hoping for a 'miracle' on June 3, as authorities said they were racing against time to find any survivors. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
An elderly survivor (C) is carried onto the river bank after being rescued from the Dongfangzhixing or 'Eastern Star' vessel which sank in the Yangtze river in Jianli, central China's Hubei province on June 2, 2015. Divers raced to find survivors on June 2 after a Chinese ship sank with more than 450 mainly elderly people in the storm-tossed Yangtze river, raising hopes more people can be found alive. (Photo credit STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A survivor (C) 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. Divers raced to find survivors on June 2 after a Chinese ship sank with more than 450 mainly elderly people in the storm-tossed Yangtze river, raising hopes more people can be found alive. (Photo credit STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Rescue teams search for survivors near the Dongfangzhixing or 'Eastern Star' vessel which sank in the Yangtze river in Jianli, central China's Hubei province on June 2, 2015. Divers raced to find survivors on June 2 after a Chinese ship sank with more than 450 mainly elderly people in the storm-tossed Yangtze river, raising hopes more people can be found alive. (Photo credit STR/AFP/Getty Images)
An elderly passenger (C) is escorted to the river bank after being rescued from the Dongfangzhixing or 'Eastern Star' vessel which sank in the Yangtze river in Jianli, central China's Hubei province on June 2, 2015. Divers raced to find survivors on June 2 after a Chinese ship sank with more than 450 mainly elderly people in the storm-tossed Yangtze river, raising hopes more people can be found alive. (Photo credit STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A relative of missing passengers who were on a ship which sank in the powerful Yangtze river the night before reacts after hearing news of the sinking outside a travel agency in Shanghai on June 2, 2015. China mounted a rescue operation on June 2 after the ship which was reportedly carrying more than 450 people sank in the powerful Yangtze river after being hit by stormy weather. (Photo credit STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A relatives (R) of missing passengers who were on a ship which sank in the powerful Yangtze river the night before cries as he accepts an interview from a journalist outside a travel agency in Shanghai on June 2, 2015. China mounted a rescue operation on June 2 after the ship which was reportedly carrying more than 450 people sank in the powerful Yangtze river after being hit by stormy weather. (Photo credit STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of passengers on board the Dongfangzhixing or 'Eastern Star' which sank en route from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing, mourn as they wait for information at a hotel in Nanjing, east China's Jiangsu province on June 2, 2015. Divers racing to find survivors rescued a 65-year-old woman on June 2 after a Chinese ship sank with more than 450 mainly elderly people in the storm-tossed Yangtze river, raising hopes more people can be found alive. (Photo credit STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A relative of missing passengers who were on a ship which sank in the powerful Yangtze river the night before reacts after hearing news of the sinking outside a travel agency in Shanghai on June 2, 2015. China mounted a rescue operation on June 2 after the ship which was reportedly carrying more than 450 people sank in the powerful Yangtze river after being hit by stormy weather. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of missing passengers who were on a ship which sank in the powerful Yangtze river the night before react after hearing news of the sinking outside a travel agency in Shanghai on June 2, 2015. China mounted a rescue operation on June 2 after the ship which was reportedly carrying more than 450 people sank in the powerful Yangtze river after being hit by stormy weather. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of passengers on board the Dongfangzhixing or 'Eastern Star' which sank en route from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing, react as they wait for information at a hotel in Nanjing, east China's Jiangsu province on June 2, 2015. Divers racing to find survivors rescued a 65-year-old woman on June 2 after a Chinese ship sank with more than 450 mainly elderly people in the storm-tossed Yangtze river, raising hopes more people can be found alive. (Photo credit STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese rescue boats are seen alongside a capsized passenger ship carrying more than 450 people which sunk in the Yangtze river, triggering a rescue effort hampered by strong winds and heavy rain off Jianli in China's Hubei province on June 2, 2015. The ship named Dongfangzhixing, or 'Eastern Star', was headed from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing when it sank in the Jianli section of the river. (Photo credit STR/AFP/Getty Images)
People wait at Oriental Shipping Company in Chongqing for their relatives who took passenger ship Dongfangzhixing (Eastern Star) for Chongqing and the ship sank on Monday night in Jianli section of the Yangtze River on June 2, 2015 in Chongqing, China. A passenger ship named Dongfangzhixing (Eastern Star) carrying 458 people, including 406 Chinese passengers, 5 travel agency workers and 47 crew members aboard, according to the administration, sank at around 9:28 p.m. on Monday in the Jianli (Hubei Province) section of the Yangtze River. The ship headed for Chongqing from Nanjing and the captain and the chief engineer in thirty five people have been rescued and both claimed that the ship sank quickly after being attacked by cyclone. Chinese President Xijinping has ordered a work team of the State Council to rush to the site to guide search and rescue work, and rescue teams of Hubei, Chongqing and relevant parties to carry out all-search efforts and properly handle the aftermath. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
Chinese villagers watch as rescue teams head out to search for survivors of a passenger ship carrying more than 450 people which sunk in the Yangtze river, triggering a rescue effort hampered by strong winds and heavy rain off Jianli in China's Hubei province on June 2, 2015. The ship named Dongfangzhixing, or 'Eastern Star', was headed from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing when it sank in the Jianli section of the river.  (Photo credit: TR/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese rescue boats are seen alongside a capsized passenger ship carrying more than 450 people which sunk in the Yangtze river, triggering a rescue effort hampered by strong winds and heavy rain off Jianli in China's Hubei province on June 2, 2015. The ship named Dongfangzhixing, or 'Eastern Star', was headed from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing when it sank in the Jianli section of the river. (Photo credit STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese rescue teams head out to search for survivors of a passenger ship carrying more than 450 people which sunk in the Yangtze river, triggering a rescue effort hampered by strong winds and heavy rain off Jianli in China's Hubei province on June 2, 2015. The ship named Dongfangzhixing, or 'Eastern Star', was headed from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing when it sank in the Jianli section of the river. (Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A Chinese rescue team head out to search for survivors of a passenger ship carrying more than 450 people which sunk in the Yangtze river, triggering a rescue effort hampered by strong winds and heavy rain off Jianli in China's Hubei province on June 2, 2015. The ship named Dongfangzhixing, or 'Eastern Star', was headed from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing when it sank in the Jianli section of the river. (Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A Chinese rescue team head out to search for survivors of a passenger ship carrying more than 450 people which sunk in the Yangtze river, triggering a rescue effort hampered by strong winds and heavy rain off Jianli in China's Hubei province on June 2, 2015. The ship named Dongfangzhixing, or 'Eastern Star', was headed from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing when it sank in the Jianli section of the river. (Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Recovery and rescue crews attend the accident site where a ship carrying 458 people sank on Monday night in Jianli section of the Yangtze River on June 2, 2015 in Jingzhou, Hubei province of China. A passenger ship named Dongfangzhixing (Eastern Star) carrying 458 people, including 406 Chinese passengers, 5 travel agency workers and 47 crew members aboard, according to the administration, sank at around 9:28 p.m. on Monday in the Jianli (Hubei Province) section of the Yangtze River. The captain and the chief engineer in eight people have been rescued and both claimed that the ship sank quickly after being attacked by cyclone. Chinese President Xijinping has ordered a work team of the State Council to rush to the site to guide search and rescue work, and rescue teams of Hubei, Chongqing and relevant parties to carry out all-search efforts and properly handle the aftermath. (Photo by Chen Zhuo/Yangzi River Daily/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
Recovery and rescue crews attend the accident site where a ship carrying 458 people sank on Monday night in Jianli section of the Yangtze River on June 2, 2015 in Jingzhou, Hubei province of China. A passenger ship named Dongfangzhixing (Eastern Star) carrying 458 people, including 406 Chinese passengers, 5 travel agency workers and 47 crew members aboard, according to the administration, sank at around 9:28 p.m. on Monday in the Jianli (Hubei Province) section of the Yangtze River. The captain and the chief engineer in eight people have been rescued and both claimed that the ship sank quickly after being attacked by cyclone. Chinese President Xijinping has ordered a work team of the State Council to rush to the site to guide search and rescue work, and rescue teams of Hubei, Chongqing and relevant parties to carry out all-search efforts and properly handle the aftermath. (Photo by Chen Zhuo/Yangzi River Daily/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
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