Hope fades as families head for stricken China ship

By Engen Tham

By Engen Tham

NANJING, China (Reuters) - Holding a photo of her husband on her iPad, Chen Suhua recalled their trip to the United States where they spent nine days on a cruise ship sailing to Cuba.

Half a year later, the 73-year-old retiree choked back tears as she contemplated the fate of her husband who, along with over 400 others, remained missing on Wednesday after a cruise ship capsized in the Yangtze River in southern China.

"He doesn't look 78, see, does he? I have heart problems, but not him. He's so strong and he swims very well," Chen said of her husband.

Like almost everyone else with kin aboard the vessel, she knows very little about the rescue operation, and she has heard nothing about her husband.

Frustrated by the lack of information coming from local authorities, some family members took matters into their own hands on Wednesday and hired a bus to take them from Nanjing to Jianli county in central Hubei province where the ship capsized.

A day earlier, some 100 relatives had pressed officials for hours to no avail about the fate of their loved ones and the rescue operation.

About a quarter of the passengers aboard the stricken vessel had booked their tickets in Nanjing.

"Yesterday I still had some hope. The boat is big and the water hadn't gone all the way in. Now, it's been more than 40 hours. I ask you, what do I have left?" said Wang Feng, who organized the bus trip which was expected to take about eight hours.

"The bodies are coming up bloated now, what hope do I have left," added the 35-year-old wedding photographer whose father was on the ship that foundered when struck by a tornado late on Monday.

Scores of divers continued their search for the missing passengers on board the Eastern Star on Wednesday, in what could be the China's worst shipping disaster in almost 70 years. Of the 458 people on the ship, 18 are confirmed dead and 14 people have been found alive.

Aboard the bus, most of the family members gazed aimlessly out the window at the gray skies and fields that passed by.

A large basket of food containing bread and cake was passed around. "At least the weather isn't bad today. That's one thing to be thankful for," said Wang.

(Story refiles to add full name of Wang, para 8)

(Writing by Kazunori Takada; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)