Angry relatives demanded answers from the authorities as rescuers struggled to retrieve the bodies of more than 400 people believed to still be inside a cruise ship that sank in the Yangtze River early this week.
There were 456 people on board the Eastern Star, which was heading to south-western Chongqing city when it was hit by a tornado near Jianli county, causing the ship to take in water and keel over on its side. Only 14 people have been rescued.
The confirmed death toll was 26 as of last night, but the number is expected to rise rapidly in the days ahead as salvage operations continue.
Any hopes of a miracle were further dashed as some 200 coffins, with transparent, flower-covered tops, were transported from a factory in nearby Zhengzhou city to the Rongcheng crematorium in Jianli, located about 220km south-west of Wuhan city.
"It means even the authorities have given up hope, so we have to be mentally prepared too," Mr Hu Jinwei, 33, told The Straits Times.
His 72-year-old father and 58-year-old mother, from coastal Changzhou city, were among the mostly elderly 405 passengers. There were also five tour agency workers and 46 crew members.
Premier Li Keqiang, who has been directing rescue operations at the site since Tuesday morning, approved a plan to cut a hole in the overturned hull later that day.
But state media said yesterday afternoon that the rescuers were deliberating over another option - using cranes to hoist the ship, weighing over 2,000 tonnes, from the river.
Eventually, the vessel was hoisted before a 55cm by 60cm hole was cut in the hull late last night for frogmen to enter and search for survivors.
The uncertainties have left Nanjing resident Cao Cen feeling bittersweet. His mother Zhu Hongmei, 65, was rescued on Tuesday, but his father Cao Liangming, 68, is missing. They boarded the ship last Thursday in Nanjing with seven friends for a 10-day cruise.
"My mother's physical condition has improved, but she's still troubled mentally. Anyone who has been through such an experience would find it hard to cope," Mr Cao told The Straits Times.
"She's worried about my dad. We can try only to give her hope and tell her the rescue work is still ongoing. But so many hours have passed that even we, the children, will have to make mental preparations."
Those whose family members are missing are livid over a perceived lack of information, and media reports of the ship captain and chief engineer being among the first to have been rescued.
About two dozen family members, some crying and others shouting "help us", were reported to have marched to the main government office in Shanghai amid a heavy police presence.
Mr Li, who was shown on China Central Television bowing to bodies covered with sheets, pledged "regular and transparent updates" on the rescue and investigation, and urged the authorities to ensure adequate personnel and funding.
Said Ms Ni Xiuxia, 39, whose parents are missing: "We want to know if this accident was really caused by the weather or the result of human error.
"The government should give us an answer and, if it is the latter scenario, it should give us a fair account of actions taken against those responsible."
Singapore President Tony Tan Keng Yam and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday sent condolence letters to their respective Chinese counterparts, Mr Xi Jinping and Mr Li.
This article was first published on June 4, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.