Photo taken on June 5, 2015 shows the capsized cruise ship Eastern Star being hoisted in the Jianli section of the Yangtze River, central China's Hubei Province. The cruise ship that capsized in the Yangtze River on Monday night carrying 456 people is being hoisted from the river after rescuers righted it on Friday morning. (Xinhua/Cheng Min)
Huge cranes hoisted a sunken Chinese cruise ship from murky waters on Friday afternoon, nearly four days after the vessel capsized with more than 450 onboard while rescuers continued to search for hundreds of others still unaccounted for. [Special coverage]
The death toll from the doomed Eastern Star has climbed to 97 as of 5 p.m. Friday. Only 14 people have survived what could be China's worst maritime mishap in decades. The ship was carrying 456 people, mostly elderly tourists.
The decision to right the upturned ship and hoist it above water was made after divers' efforts in the past three days to comb through the ship for survivors went in vain.
One side of the cruise ship was rolled above water at 7:30 a.m. Friday, after rescuers worked overnight to right the 2,200-tonne ship.
Fifty divers have worked in three teams to tie slings around the ship to prepare for the righting in the morning.
The hoisting began at about 4 p.m. and finished at 6:50 p.m., when the entire hull was above water, Xinhua reporters at the site observed.
Rescuers are now searching the hull.
Rescuers also continue to comb through an extended area in the Yangtze River for potential survivors.
Xu Chengguang, a spokesman of the Ministry of Transport, said oil leaking from the ship was found in the river water. Blankets have been placed to help contain it.
The cruise ship was on a 11-day trip along the Yangtze River when it was quickly overturned by what the captain described as a freak tornado on Monday night in Jianli in central China's Hubei Province.
More than 3,400 soldiers, 1,700 paramilitary police with 149 vessels, 59 machines and a helicopter have joined in the massive rescue efforts.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC) have called on rescuers to "take all possible measures" to save lives. They have also demanded serious investigation into the cause of the tragedy.
Eighty-nine relatives of 39 passengers from Shanghai have arrived in Hubei, according to the Shanghai municipal government. A total of 107 passengers booked the cruise tour with the Shanghai-based Xiehe Travel Agency.
On Friday, relatives of those who have been found dead or remain missing were escorted to the shore to watch the ship being righted and hoisted.
Many of those overlooking the ship from the shore appeared to be in their 30s and 40s. Some broke down in tears when they saw the ship. Others looked calmer but exhausted after anxiously waiting for the news of their beloved ones for days.
Authorities in Jianli have also asked relatives to provide blood samples and collected information to match their DNA with that of the victims.
Bodies retrieved from the ship have been placed at local funeral parlors.
RIGHTING THE SHIP
After three days of divers combing compartments and searches on the nearby murky waters, rescuers on Thursday evening decided to hoist and upright the wreckage.
Detection equipment used in recent searches also failed to detect any signs of life during the 72 hours after the ship sank, a period widely believed to be crucial in finding survivors.
"There is a slim chance that we will find more survivors inside the hull. We have made the general judgement that there is no possibility of survival," said Xu with the transport ministry.
Xu explained that the decision would help find the missing "in the shortest possible time" and "protect the dignity of the deceased".
SHIP OPERATOR RESPONDS
Chongqing Dongfang Shipping Company, which operates the Eastern Star and four other cruise ships on the Yangtze River, has been ordered to conduct a self-examination on its shipping business in the wake of the tragedy.
However, no official investigation targeting the company has been made.
Tan Yuping, head of the company's technological department, said Eastern Star was launched in 1994 as a vessel for passenger transport. It was transformed into a cruise ship 1997 and put into service after passing tilting and stability tests.
Tan added that the ship has a sound safety operation record.
Eastern Star's latest annual safety inspection on April 16 have shown the placement of survival equipment on the vessel meet concerned requirement.