Twenty people, including a female crew member, at least five students and two teachers, have been confirmed dead after the sinking of a ferry off South Korea’s southern coast, according to officials. But the toll was expected to jump amid fears that more than 270 missing passengers — many of them high school students — were dead. Coast guard officials have put the number of survivors at 179.
There were 475 people aboard the ferry, including 325 students on a school trip to the tourist island of Jeju in the south of the country. The ferry had traveled overnight from Incheon on the northwestern coast of South Korea and was three hours short of its destination when it began to list. The cause is not yet known.
The high number of people unaccounted for — likely trapped in the ship or floating in the ocean — raised fears that the death toll could rise drastically, making it one of South Korea’s biggest ferry disasters since 1993, when 292 people died.
One student, Lim Hyung-min, told broadcaster YTN after being rescued that he and other students jumped into the ocean wearing life jackets and then swam to a nearby rescue boat.
“As the ferry was shaking and tilting, we all tripped and bumped into each another,” Lim said, adding that some people were bleeding. Once he jumped, the ocean “was so cold. … I was hurrying, thinking that I wanted to live.”
Local television stations broadcast live pictures of the ship, Sewol, listing to its side and slowly sinking as passengers jumped out or were winched up by helicopters. At least 87 vessels and 18 aircraft swarmed around the stricken ship. Rescuers clambered over its sides, pulling out passengers wearing orange life jackets. But the ship overturned completely and continued to sink slowly. Within a few hours only its blue-and-white bow stuck out of the water. Very soon, that too disappeared.
Some 160 coast guard and navy divers searched for survivors inside the ship’s wreckage a few kilometers (miles) from Byeongpung Island, which is not far from the mainland. The area is about 470 kilometers (290 miles) from Seoul.
The 6,325-ton passenger ship”SEWOL”was capsized and sank down into waters off the Jindo Island, just off the southwest corner of the Korean Peninsula, at around 11:30 a.m. local time Wednesday.
The ferry, which was carrying 475 passengers and 30 crew members, sent out a distress signal at about 8:55 a.m.
The 429 passengers on board included 325 high school students and 15 teachers who had been on the way for a school journey.
The vessel was believed to run aground in the waters as some rescued passengers said the ship began to careen to the port side after making a banging sound on the bow.
The ferry went off the pre-arranged sea route as it departed some two and a half hours later than scheduled due to a thick fog.
The vice minister said 350 more rescuers were dispatched to the scene to help search for the 290 missing people, some of whom were feared to be trapped inside the sunken vessel.
The ship departed from South Korea’s western port city of Incheon Tuesday night, heading for the southern resort island of Jeju.
After receiving the distress signal, the South Korean authorities, including police, firehouse, coast guard and navy, dispatched 72 rescue ships and scrambled 18 helicopters to the scene for rescue operations.
There were no Chinese passengers on board the vessel, according to the Chinese Embassy in South Korea.
This report compiled with information from Xinhua and the Associated Press.