Breaking through a police cordon, dozens of Chinese have marched in protest to the site of a sunken cruise ship in the Yangtze River to demand news of missing relatives.

Rescuers searched on Wednesday for more than 400 missing people, many of them elderly, but hopes were fading of finding more survivors from the worst shipping disaster in modern Chinese history.

Only 14 people, including the ship's captain, have been found alive since the ship capsized in a tornado on Monday night with 456 people on board.

Just 29 bodies have been recovered.

 

Al Jazeera's Adrian Brown, reporting from the rescue site, said while on Tuesday rescuers had heard shouts from the stern, there had been nothing since.

Frustrated by the level of information coming from local authorities, about 80 family members hired a bus to take them from Nanjing to Jianli county in Hubei, an eight-hour journey.

They were seen walking towards the rescue site late on Wednesday evening.

"This isn't going to be much use, we're just doing this for the government to see," Wang Feng, one of the organisers, said.

The protesters later broke through a cordon of 20 to 25 paramilitary police who had tried to prevent them from going through a roadblock.

Volunteers from Jianli offered rides and water to the relatives.

Some people tied yellow ribbons on their car side mirrors.

Crew's rescue questioned

Earlier, 47 of the relatives asked the Chinese government to release the names of the living and the dead to them at the rescue site, according to a statement.

In a separate statement, other relatives questioned why most of the people rescued were crew members, why the boat did not dock, and why the captain and crew members had time to don their life vests but not sound an alarm.

State television showed rescuers, some standing on the Eastern Star's upturned hull, and scores of divers working through the night.

Rescuers have not slackened although divers face difficulties such as cabin doors blocked by tables and beds.

There is also the fear that rashly cutting holes in the hull could burst air pockets keeping people alive.

 

"Although there's lots of work to do, saving people is still being put first," Xu Chengguang, transport ministry spokesperson, said.

TV pictures showed a rain-soaked Premier Li Keqiang bowing in respect to bodies laid out on the deck of a boat covered in sheets.

Relatives were already bracing for the worst.

The ship was on an 11-day voyage upstream from Nanjing, near Shanghai, to Chongqing.

The People's Daily said the ship passed inspections by authorities in Chongqing last month. But according to documents from a local maritime watchdog, it was investigated and held by authorities due to defects in 2013.

The Nanjing Maritime Safety Administration investigated Eastern Star as part of a safety campaign into passenger ferries and tour boats and held the ship along with five other vessels, according to three documents on the bureau's website.

The documents gave no details on the defects but said the issues were reported to the Chongqing maritime safety bureau.

Search area expanded

The search area has been expanded up to 220km downstream, state television said, suggesting that bodies could have been swept far from where the ship foundered.

Zhang Hui, a tour guide who survived the disaster, told the official Xinhua news agency that it was raining so hard water was seeping through cabin windows, and that the ship then listed violently.

"I thought, 'this isn't right', and I told my colleague, 'I think we're in trouble'. After I said that, the ship flipped over. It only took 30 seconds or a minute," Zhang said.

China's weather bureau said a tornado buffeted the area where the ship was cruising, a freak occurrence in a country where twisters can happen but are uncommon.

Accidents of this magnitude are uncommon in China.

State media said it was the worst recorded ship disaster on the Yangtze River. In 1948, the steamship Kiangya blew up on the Huangpu river, killing more than 1,000 people.

FIELD NOTES FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT

Al Jazeera's Adrian Brown
JIANLI, HUBEI - China's government laid on a boat trip for foreign and local journalists so they could see for themselves the efforts being made to find people who may still be alive. The trip was in response to complaints from the media, many of whom were denied access to the scene on Tuesday.
The government's message on Wednesday was this: the rescue operation will continue while there is even a faint chance of someone being alive. But bad weather, murky waters and strong currents continue to hamper the operation.
A large floating crane has now been moved into position near the upturned hull of the Eastern Star. It may be used to steady the vessel if a decision is made to drill into portions of it.
Like the media, relatives of the missing are also being prevented from going to the area on their own. On Tuesday we found a woman grieving alone at the river's edge further down stream. She didn't want to give her name, and we didn't want to intrude.
This could be China's worst maritime accident since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. And it comes, of course, after what has been a deadly 15 months for transport in Asia. MH370, the South Korean ferry tragedy and now this.
On Thursday, more families of the missing are due to arrive in Jianli, from where the rescue operation is being coordinated. Some are already expressing their understandable frustration over the lack of official information.
There has already been a protest by families in Shanghai, where many if the mostly elderly passengers come from.
This is one time of the year when the authorities are especially sensitive to displays of dissent.
Thursday June 4 is the 26th anniversary of the suppression of student led pro democracy protests in Beijing.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies