The official explanation for the cause of the boat disaster on China’s Yangtze River has been called into question by a fisherman who says he witnessed the accident.
Officials and the boat’s captain have repeatedly said a cyclone was to blame for the capsizing and subsequent sinking of the Eastern Star on Monday night with 456 people on board.
However, fisherman Feng Xianming told Sky News that although the weather was bad, it was not a cyclone.
Hundreds of divers are searching for more than 400 people still missing. Only 14 survivors have so far been found, along with 26 bodies.
They have started work on cutting through a section of the vessel’s hull protruding from the murky water amid reports people were heard yelling for help from inside.
Mr Feng was speaking from beside his fishing shack on the banks of the Yangtze, directly overlooking the rescue operation.
He explained that he saw a passenger boat passing him, heading upstream, on Monday night.
He noticed the lights on the boat go out, but thought nothing of it given that visibility was bad and it was probably just over a mile across the vast river from his position.
Only later, when he heard sirens and saw other boats arriving did he realise something terrible had happened.
Asked about the claim that a “cyclone” had caused the accident, he insisted that while the weather was bad, there had been no cyclone.
Mr Feng – who has been a fisherman on the Yangtze for 40 years – pointed to the riverside shack he was sleeping in on Monday night.
“My shack wouldn’t have survived if there had been a cyclone,” he said.
In a news conference on Tuesday, Chinese Ministry of Transport spokesperson Zhong Shoudao gave the first hint that the boat’s design may have contributed to the accident.
“The ship was a grade B vessel, with a wind resistance below the official standards. Because of this, it was prone to capsizing in a tornado with wind blowing hard on it,” he said.
There are unconfirmed suggestions that the Eastern Star and five other ships were all impounded for a short period in 2013 for reported safety infractions.
The passenger manifest on the boat confirms it was not overloaded.
The Eastern Star was on a 900-mile trip from the eastern city of Nanjing to Chongqing in the southwest when it overturned.
It could be China’s deadliest maritime accident for almost 70 years, according to state media agency Xinhua.