Six bodies have been recovered from the passenger ship which capsized during a storm and hundreds more are still missing among the 458 people on board, state media said.
Tour guide Zhang Hui "had 30 seconds to grab a life jacket" before the ship overturned in the mighty Yangtze river during a storm, the Xinhua news agency reported on Tuesday.
The hundreds of passengers on a Chinese ferry which sank in a matter of seconds, had little warning before disaster struck, according to a state media interview with a survivor.
More than 400 passengers had already taken to their beds for sleep as lightning streaked the sky and rain pounding against the ship seeped through windows and into their cabins. They began taking soaked quilts and TV sets into the ship's hall around 9:20pm (13:20 GMT) on Monday.
Within minutes the ship's tossing became more violent, with the vessel tilting as much as 45 degrees, Zhang added. The 43-year old and a colleague "grabbed everything they could reach and kept their heads above water" as the ship sank, Xinhua said. The ship reportedly went down in less than a minute.
Tossed around in wind and heavy rain, Zhang could not swim but survived the ordeal, thanks to his life jacket, eventually drifting onto reeds and pulling himself to shore as dawn broke. He was eventually discovered and taken to a hospital, Xinhua said.
"Just hang in there a little longer, I told myself," Zhang said.
More than a dozen people have been saved from the Dongfangzhixing, or "Eastern Star," which went down on the popular tourist route from the eastern city of Nanjing to the southwestern city of Chongqing, Xinhua said.
Rescue workers remove a body from the hull of the capsized ship on the Yangtze River. (AP Photo)
The Xinhua account did not indicate whether the cruise ship's staff warned passengers of danger or told them to prepare for evacuation by putting on life jackets.
"Life jackets are accessible in all of the cruise's cabins. If it had not happened so fast, a lot of people could've been saved," a sobbing Zhang said, according to Xinhua.
Zhang said he first heard the cries of at least a dozen other people also struggling in the heavy waves. But soon only a few voices remained, and about half an hour later they were silent, he recalled.
Distraught family members who had waved elderly parents off on a pleasure cruise gathered at a Shanghai travel agency on Tuesday, sobbing and pleading for information on their fate.
One man expressed his grief with a tearful apology to his parents, who were among the hundreds of missing. "I'm sorry, mom and dad. I haven't shown enough filial piety," he said, referring to the Chinese concept of honouring one's parents. "I still have so many things I want to tell them. I thought they would come back safe and sound," he added, sitting on a sofa screaming and crying in front of other relatives.
The Shanghai Xiehe Travel Agency, located in an office block, was closed following the late Monday accident, but phones still rang inside while a sign on the locked door said company managers had left to deal with the aftermath.
Relatives also gathered in the eastern city of Nanjing, from where the boat departed, and the southwestern municipality of Chongqing which was the final destination.
Many complained about the lack of information about the accident which took place far up the Yangtze river in the central province of Hubei.
"I knew of the accident around six o'clock this morning through the news and then came here at seven o'clock. We have been waiting here but we haven't heard any information," said Chen whose sister and brother-in-law were onboard.