JINDO, South Korea: South Korean rescuers and dive teams worked frantically under floodlights as fears rose for nearly 300 people missing after a ferry sank Wednesday with 462 on board, mostly high school students bound for a holiday island.
National disaster agency officials said 174 people had been rescued, leaving 284 “unaccounted for.” There were four confirmed deaths, including a female crew member and a student.
There are concerns the death toll could rise sharply. The 6,825-ton Sewol listed violently, capsized and finally sank — all within two hours of sending a distress signal at 9 a.m. local time.
“I’m afraid there’s little chance for those trapped inside still to be alive,” one senior rescue team official, Cho Yang-Bok, told YTN television as divers struggled to access the submerged multi-deck ferry.
Dramatic television footage showed terrified passengers wearing life jackets clambering into inflatable boats with water lapping over the rails of the vessel as it sank 20 kilometers off the southern island of Byungpoong. Some slid down the steeply inclined side of the ferry and into the water as rescuers, including the crew of what appeared to be a small fishing boat, pulled them to safety. As night fell the coastguard said the rescue operation was continuing using floodlights and underwater flares.
“We won’t give up, although the situation is extremely worrying,” a coastguard spokesman said.
Several rescued passengers said they had initially been told to remain in their cabins and seats, but then the ferry listed hard to one side, triggering panic. “The crew kept telling us not to move,” one male survivor told the YTN news channel.
“Then it suddenly shifted over and people slid to one side and it became very difficult to get out,” he added.
The passe ngers included 325 students from a high school in Ansan just south of Seoul, who were traveling with their teachers to the popular island resort of Jeju.
“I feel so pained to see students on a school trip… face such a tragic accident. I want you to pour all your energy into this mission,” President Park Geun-Hye said on a visit to the disaster agency’s situation room in Seoul.
Many of the survivors were plucked from the water by fishing and other commercial vessels who were first on the scene before a flotilla of coastguard and navy ships arrived, backed by more than a dozen helicopters.
Lee Gyeong-Og, the vice minister of security and public administration, said 178 divers, including a team of South Korean navy SEALS, were working at the site, but low water visibility and strong currents were hampering their efforts.