Shipwreck off China's east coast kills 104 people

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A ferry pummelled by violent winds and towering waves caught fire and cracked open off the coast of eastern China, killing at least 104 people and leaving many others missing, state-run media and local officials said Thursday.

A ferry pummelled by violent winds and towering waves caught fire and cracked open off the coast of eastern China, killing at least 104 people and leaving many others missing, state-run media and local officials said Thursday.

The ship wrecked amid gale-force winds late Wednesday near Yantai, in eastern China's Shandong province, as it headed for the northeastern port of Dalian carrying 312 passengers and crew, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The Dashun, operated by the Yanda Ferry Company, was also carrying 60 vehicles, the Dalian Evening News reported. Most of those aboard the boat were from Dalian, it said.

"It was very tragic. The sea was covered with bodies," said a Yantai city fire brigade officer, who refused to give his name.

Asked if rescuers had found any survivors, he replied: 'Yes, too few."

He added that waves were pushing bodies toward the shore.

First word of the disaster came from a passenger with a cell phone who called Dalian police, said an official at the city's Sea Inspection Bureau.

The ship sent out distress signals when flames were found on its second deck, but ships in the area were unable to approach the vessel due to the weather conditions, Xinhua said.

The fire spread to the third deck, and the main helm of the ship broke apart about four hours later. The ship later stopped sending distress signals and drifted until it was found stranded late Wednesday, the report said.

A Shanghai newspaper, the official Xinmin Evening News, said the fire spread from the ship's lower vehicle deck and may have been caused by a car.

Temperatures around freezing hampered rescue operations. Xinhua cited rescue workers who said only 20 people had been rescued by Thursday afternoon.

The Yantai fire officer said his brigade sent about 40 to 50 people, as well as rescue vehicles. Police also joined the rescue operation, he added.

Yantai is 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Dalian, just across the Bohai Strait leading into the Bohai Sea, and the waters there can be tempestuous. Forecasts for the region had warned of extremely strong winds Wednesday.

The cause of the fire was under investigation.

The accident was the second sinking in five weeks of a vessel operated by the Yanda Ferry Co., the Dalian Evening News said. In the earlier wreck, the "Shenglu" caught fire and sank near Dalian on Oct. 17, leaving three people missing. Rescuers managed to save 158 of the ship's 161 passengers and crew.

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