Chinese officials confirmed that at least 15 people survived the tragedy, with some found alive inside the submerged hull of the Eastern Star.
The captain and the chief engineer, who were lucky enough to get resqued, have been detained for further investigation. According to them, the cruise ship, which sent no emergency signal, was caught in a cyclone.
The rescue is continuing into the night but is being suspended by bad weather conditions.
Chinese media quoted the captain as saying the vessel sank within minutes, while many people were asleep. BBC weather forecaster Peter Gibbs confirmed there were severe thunderstorms in the area of the tragedy.
Most of passengers on board were tourists aged between 50 and 80 travelling from the eastern city of Nanjing to Chongqing in the south-west – a journey of at least 1,500km (930 miles).
“The ship sank in the Damazhou waterway section of the Yangtze, where the world’s third longest river reaches depths of about 15m (50ft),” BBC reports.
“Looks like we are in trouble,” tour guide Zhang Hui, recalled telling a colleague. In an interview with a local news agency, he explained that rain pounded the ship, seeping into cabins, and that heavy listing sent bottles rolling off tables before the ship suddenly went all the way over.
The 43-year-old passanger said he got a life jacket with seconds to spare and drifted all night despite not being able to swim, before he was caught by rescuers.
“The raindrops hitting my face felt like hailstones,” he said. “‘Just hang in there a little longer,’ I told myself.”
Divers working on the scene pulled out of water a 65-year-old woman and, later, two men who had been trapped.
“We will do everything we can to rescue everyone trapped in there, no matter they’re still alive or not and we will treat them as our own families,” Hubei military region commander Chen Shoumin said.
“A group of about a dozen retirees from a Shanghai bus company were on the trip, said a woman who identified herself only by her surname, Chen. Among them, she said, were her elder sister and her elder sister’s husband, both 60, and their 6-year-old granddaughter,” The Huffington Post writes.
“That old woman had a very strong will and learned very fast, and after 20 minutes she surfaced to the water and was rescued,” Chen added.
Huang Yan, 49, who also was on board, told a reporter that she believes that her husband, 49, and his father, who is in his 70s, were rescued after the ship went sinking. However, the woman said she couldn’t be sure because she hadn’t seen an official passenger list yet.
“Why did the captain leave the ship while the passengers were still missing?” Huang shouted. “We want the government to release the name list to see who was on the boat.”
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is reported to be traveling to the accident site. President Xi Jinping had ordered a work team of the State Council, the country’s Cabinet, to rush to the site to guide the rescue work.