Hundreds die as blaze destroys Chinese ferry

UP TO 250 people are feared dead after a Chinese ferry caught fire and broke apart during a violent storm.

With rescue attempts hampered by gale-force winds and towering waves, officials said yesterday that they had found only 36 survivors from the 312 passengers and crew who boarded the 9,000-ton Dashun at Yantai in North-east China on Wednesday evening. "It was tragic, the sea was covered with bodies,'' said an official from Yantai, where strong winds were pushing corpses towards the shore. Asked if any survivors had been found, he replied: `Yes, too few."

The China News Service later reported that more than 150 people had been killed and more than 100 others were missing. It said 36 people had been rescued. No foreigners were among the dead or missing, the agency said.

Television showed a beach littered with thousands of oranges, apples and otherwreckage, including what appeared to be at least three life-rafts. The ferry, which was heading across the Bo Hai Strait for Dalian, sent out distress signals on Wednesday afternoon when crew found flames on the second deck as they struggled against gale force winds off Yantai.

More than 30 naval vessels, tugs and fishing boats dispatched to help with rescue efforts were unable to get close enough and the fire then spread to the third deck. Within four hours the ship had broken apart.

The last signals from the Dashun were picked up shortly before midnight, the official Xinhua news agency reported. The China News Service said the ship, operated by the Yanda Ferry Company, was destroyed by the fire and sank.

In October, another of the Yanda Ferry Company's vessels caught fire and sank near Dalian. Rescuers managed to save 158 of the ship's 161 passengers and crew.