As divers pulled more bodies from the sunken wreckage of a car and passenger ferry last week, officials vowed to recover all of the 280 victims of China's worst ferry disaster in recent years, which occurred on Nov. 24.
The death toll threatens to surpass that of China's worst shipping disaster in recent years, in which 133 people died when a ferry collided with a freighter on the Yangtze River and sank in February 1994.
Only 22 of the 302 people aboard the ferry are known to have survived the disaster, in which the 9,000-ton Dashun caught fire, then broke up and sank in rough seas and gale-force winds. The most recent report on the recovery effort brought the number of bodies found to 123.
The ferry reportedly sent out distress signals after flames were discovered as it struggled against gale force winds.
The Dashun was heading north from Yantai across the mouth of Bohai Bay bound
for the northeastern port of Dalian, 400 km (250 miles) east of Beijing, when it was forced to turn back. The ship started to break up four hours after sending distress signals. The last signals from the ship were picked up just before midnight.
"Search and rescue efforts continue," a spokesman for the China Maritime Search and Rescue Center in Beijing, said.
News reports said waves measuring 16 ft. (5 m) high and freezing temperatures were hampering search efforts by dozens of military and civilian ships and more than 5,000 coastal residents.
There has been no official comment on the cause of the fierce fire that broke out on board the stricken vessel. One news report, however, attributed the blaze to leaking gas on the lower decks, where cars were tossed around as the ship pitched in rough seas.
The Chinese government suspended the state-owned ferry operator after the disaster, the company's second in two months. The firm will not be allowed to resume operations, officials said, until stringent safety measures had been taken.
China's busy and often foggy sea lanes and waterways have been the scene of numerous deadly ship collisions. In July 1998, at least 50 people drowned when a ferry collided with another boat and capsized in the Yangtze in the southwestern province of Sichuan. In January 1997, 42 people drowned in Sichuan's Tuojiang River after an overloaded passenger ferry struck a freighter in thick fog.