JIANLI, China - Authorities admit there is no hope for more survivors from a capsized Chinese cruise ship, as cranes on Friday slowly raised the sunken vessel with exhausted relatives preparing themselves for further agony.
Just 14 of the 456 people on board the Eastern Star were rescued after it sank on the Yangtze River late Monday, and "comprehensive research and analysis of the facts" showed the chances of finding anyone still alive were "increasingly slim", a transport ministry spokesman said.
"Based on the general judgement that there is no possibility of survival" authorities decided to right the ship, Xu Chengguang told a press conference late Thursday.
State media said a total of 82 people have already been confirmed dead since the cruise liner sank in Hubei province's Jianli county, but hundreds were still missing, many believed trapped in the ship's hull.
Once the final toll is confirmed, the tragedy is set to become China's worst shipping disaster in nearly 70 years, state media have reported.
Rescuers operating massive cranes battled from Thursday night to right the Eastern Star, and daybreak demonstrated some success, with state media images showing the ship upright but with much of it still below water.
Xu also said that with the aim to "search for and find the missing people in the shortest possible time" and "protect the dignity of the deceased to the greatest extent", authorities wanted to lift the ship "as soon as possible", the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Workers on Thursday welded giant hooks onto the hull, an AFP reporter witnessed, as they prepared to lift the 76.5 metre long (250 feet) vessel in a delicate and risky operation that could have destabilised the wreck and sent it further down the river.
Relatives of those on board gathered Thursday night in a public square in Jianli, clutching candles and flowers to pray for those lost in the disaster.
Hundreds of people, many of them relatives of the missing who have come from across China, tearfully laid out candles in the shape of crosses, hearts and 6.1 - the date the ferry capsized.
"Stay strong, stay strong," one woman said to another, as the pair sobbed while clutching flowers.
Anger of relatives
Most of the passengers were aged over 60 and on a tourist trip when the ship sank, reportedly in less than a minute.
Weather officials said a small but fast-moving tornado hit the area at the time, but few other details have been released. The captain and other crew members have been questioned.
Beijing on Thursday pledged to carry out a "serious investigation" after President Xi Jinping called a meeting with top leaders to discuss the tragedy and its aftermath.
Information about the sinking and media access to the site have been tightly controlled and any public criticism of the search operation quickly doused.
The vessel was cited for safety infractions two years ago, according to a notice by the Nanjing Maritime Bureau, but no further details have been given about the state of the ship.
Hundreds of relatives, frustrated by the lack of news, have converged on the disaster site in the hope of finding out more about their loved ones where they are being closely monitored by police.
More than 1,200 family members have so far arrived in Jianli, state broadcaster China Central Television said in an online post.
Hotels across the county were reserving rooms while authorities have beefed up security at areas where relatives were expected to congregate, such as the riverbank and the funeral parlour.
Among them was 40-year-old Jiang Sudong, who had travelled from Shanghai to seek news on his older brother Jiang Weiming.
"I am really angry that we are not being allowed to see for ourselves what is happening at the scene of the boat," he said as he waited outside a funeral parlour in Jianli.