Rescue workers trolling the frigid waters of eastern China's Bo Hai bay found 150 bodies but only 36 survivors today from among the 312 passengers and crew aboard a ferry that caught fire and foundered.

The 9,000-ton Dashun, which was named after the Chinese characters for "big" and "smooth," went down late Wednesday night off the coastal city of Yantai in violent seas and nearly freezing weather, according to official Chinese reports. Nearby naval vessels and fishing boats sent to help were forced to keep their distance from the sinking ship because of the fierce conditions, according to the New China News Agency.

"The low temperature, around zero degrees Celsius [32 degrees Fahrenheit], and the continued gale made rescue efforts difficult," the agency said.

At least one passenger swam to safety, and rescuers eventually plucked others from the water. Some 5,000 local farmers gathered along the shore looking for signs of life. Television footage showed beaches strewn with apples and other debris from the ship.

The ferry was traveling from Yantai to the major port of Dalian along an important shipping route. More than 200,000 boats, and 3.5 million people, make the 100-mile journey every year.

Sixteen-foot waves and violent winds that broke out Wednesday night forced the Dashun to turn back to Yantai, the closest port. Continued rough seas touched off a fire on the vehicle deck when the ship was 23 miles offshore, and the crew began sending out distress signals at 4:30 p.m., according to official reports.

The fire spread, the engines were knocked out, and the ship became stranded. The vessel broke apart at 8 p.m., and the distress signals finally ended at 11:45, when the ship went down, the reports said. Passengers made terrified calls on their cellular phones as the ship slowly broke apart, reports said.

An official from the Yanda Ferry Co., which operated the Dashun, said the firm is investigating the cause of the disaster. Another ship owned by Yanda sank on Oct. 17, according to the Dalian Evening News. In that case, 158 of the ship's 161 passengers were saved, according to the paper.

The China Daily said half the passengers leapt to their deaths into the sea as the ferry foundered. Crew members had prepared lifeboats, but many of those who managed to clamber on board apparently perished in near-freezing conditions.