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No signs of life as rescuers cut into hull of capsized Chinese cruise ship

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JIANLI COUNTY, China  — Large cranes loomed over the upended hull of the Eastern Star on Thursday, waiting to begin the grim task of righting the capsized Chinese cruise ship and recovering the bodies of hundreds of people believed to be trapped inside. Authorities say the effort to right the ship was to begin at 8 a.m. ET.

With hopes of finding survivors all but extinguished, authorities said they planned to keep searching for people alive inside the wreck until late Thursday, 72 hours after the ship sank in the cloudy waters of the Yangtze River in central China.

“This is to show respect for life,” said Wang Zhigang, a local official in charge of ship inspections.

As a last resort, rescue workers have tried cutting holes in the part of the hull protruding from the water.

But those efforts have so far revealed no signs of life.

Fourteen people have survived the disaster, a number that has barely changed since Tuesday, the day after the Eastern Star capsized during a storm on the section of the Yangtze that flows through Hubei province.

The confirmed death toll has risen to 77, authorities said. More than 360 people, many in their 60s and 70s, remain unaccounted for, and authorities appear to be bracing for the worst.

They have set up tents on the riverbanks that officials said were for processing bodies pulled out of the water. And local media have reported that workers at a nearby funeral home have been preparing large numbers of refrigerated caskets.

Family members’ anger

Relatives of those on board, many of them based far away in eastern China where the cruise began, have faced a tortuous wait for news with the rescue operation hampered by frequent rain and strong currents.

Some family members have tried to make their way to the disaster site, expressing anger at the official response.

“No one is helping him,” said Chen Suhua, whose 78-year-old husband was a passenger.

“The boat is still upside down, and the politicians are just making speeches,” she told CNN at the scene late Wednesday.

Some residents of Jianli County, near the disaster site, have pitched in to help the anguished family members, distributing water and offering rides in cars bearing yellow ribbons.

Questions over cause of disaster

Many questions remain about what happened to the Eastern Star on Monday night.

Authorities have taken the captain and the chief engineer into custody but have revealed little about what they have said, other than that a tornado hit the ship.

It’s unclear why the Eastern Star was the only ship on the busy waterway so badly affected by the storm.

Satellite information from a website run by the Chinese Transportation Ministry shows the cruise ship suddenly changing direction a matter of minutes before authorities say it sank.

But what caused the ship to start moving downstream rather than upstream isn’t clear. One possibility is that the change in direction came after the ship was left disabled and drifting by the storm.

Ship operator under scrutiny

The government navigation authority for Yangtze has ordered Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp., the operator of Eastern Star, to conduct comprehensive inspections on all its ships.

It has also suspended navigation for the Eastern Pearl, the sister ship of Eastern Star, to have it examined.

The Eastern Star apparently had problems complying with maritime standards two years ago.

According to a document on the Nanjing Maritime Bureau’s website, the Eastern Star and five other tourist vessels were impounded in 2013, and the issues were reported to the Chongqing Maritime Safety Administration, where the ships were registered. The document, however, did not say how long the ships were detained or what issues were involved.

The Nanjing bureau recommended that its counterpart in Chongqing strengthen its management to ensure safe navigation.

The Eastern Star was on a multiday cruise up the Yangtze, from Nanjing to Chongqing, when it capsized Monday.