JIANLI, China, June 4 (Reuters) - Amid the frenetic noise of a rescue operation and driving rain, a faint knocking was heard from within an upturned cruise ship on China's murky Yangtze River. "There are people, there are people!" rescuers cried out.
Trapped in an air pocket in her cabin on the Eastern Star which she shared with four other women, 65-year-old Zhu Hongmei was responding to hammer taps on the bottom of the boat as rescuers tried to find out if anyone was still alive after the four-storey vessel overturned and sank on Monday night.
After entering the ship and groping their way through the murky water, frogmen found Zhu, calmed her down and gently talked her through how to use breathing apparatus and how they were going to get her to the surface.
In images carried repeatedly on state television, an exhausted Zhu was pulled into the light more than 12 hours after the boat went down during a freak tornado. "My husband is also on the ship, but I couldn't find him,"Zhu said from hospital, her face streaming with tears.
Zhu was one of 14 people found alive after the accident. A total of 65 bodies were recovered but the rest of the 456 people on board remain unaccounted for. Most of them are elderly Chinese tourists, out on an 11-day river cruise in the scenic Three Gorges area.
Wu Jianqiang, 58, remembers reassuring his wife that everything was going to be fine as the Eastern Star rolled around in the storm. "Don't worry, it will be ok," Wu, a farmer from the northern Chinese city of Tianjin, remembered saying.
As the ship suddenly violently tilted to the right and water rushed into the cabin, Wu held his wife Li Xiuzhen's hands tightly, but at the moment they had to get out the force of the water pushed her away. "Let go!" Wu remembered her screaming, as he pulled himself out of the window and swam to the bank. It's not known what happened to Li.
The accounts were carried in state media. Reuters reporters have not been allowed access to the six survivors known to be in hospital. It is not clear where the other survivors are.
This was not a glamorous or high-end trip of the kind many of China's middle class are now accustomed to taking after three decades of breakneck economic growth.
With tickets priced around 1,000 yuan ($161), the tour, taking in the massive Three Gorges Dam and several ancient historical sites, attracted a large number of retirees living on modest means, many from booming eastern provinces and the glitzy commercial hub Shanghai.
Cai Bin, 39, said his mother had been enjoying the cut-price trip, even as she described how old the ship was, with a non-functioning television in her room. "You know what older people in China are like, they don't want to spend too much money when they travel. This wasn't a luxurious cruise ship or anything," Cai told Reuters. His mother remains missing.
Late May and early June is the high season for cruises around the Three Gorges, when the water is clear and temperatures not yet unbearable.
The China Meteorological Administration said a tornado with winds that reached above 117.4 km per hour (72.9 mph) struck the river surface for about 15-20 minutes that night.
In the nearby town of Jianli, 64.9 millimetres (2.6 inches) of rain fell between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m.
People living around Jianli said the thunderstorm on Monday night was extraordinary. There was no rain during the day, but the heavens opened up violently at around 8 p.m. Not long after, streets in parts of the town stretching several blocks from the river were flooded, in some areas thigh deep.
But on board the Eastern Star, the storm did not seem to cause much concern.
I WOULD HAVE GONE
Zhang Jianwei, 64, said his wife was calm when he spoke her by telephone around 9 p.m., about an hour before the accident. "She wasn't in bed yet, she was chatting with friends, I think. I told her not to go up onto the deck because of the storm," Zhang said.
Some of those on board had had tickets bought for them by their children.
Wang Sheng told the state-run Xinhua news agency his parents saw the advertisement for the tour in April, liked the cheap price, and booked. Wang paid for the trip. "They were so happy when they left home," said Wang.
At 5 p.m. on Monday evening he called his parents. "My mother answered and said everything was great and told me to look after myself. It was a short call and I didn't speak to my father. If I'd known, I'd have called more often." This couple too is among the missing.