Nearly 300 people were feared dead last night after a ferry carrying hundreds of secondary school students sank off South Korea's southern coast as they were en route for the holiday island of Jeju.
The Yonhap news agency said at least four people, including one student, were dead, and about 290 were missing, in what is looking like the country’s worst ferry disaster in decades.
The ferry was carrying 459 people, of whom 164 have been rescued, coast guard officials said. They included 325 students from Danwon High School in Ansan, just south of the capital Seoul, when it sent out a distress signal at 8:58am in waters 20km off the island of Byeongpoong.
Television footage showed the ship sinking on its side and rescue workers trying to get passengers off the doomed vessel. The ship completely capsized and sank in two hours.
There were differing reports of how many people were on board the 6,325-ton Sewol , and authorities revised the figure down from 477, saying some had been double counted. It added to growing frustration and anger among relatives of the passengers.
The government earlier said 368 people were rescued, a mistake it said was caused by double counting.
The cause of the incident was unknown, but survivors said they heard a banging noise before the ship suddenly started sinking, and there was speculation it might have hit a rock underwater, or collided with another vessel.
“There was a bang and then the ship suddenly tilted over,” a 57-year-old survivor identified by his surname Yoo told Yonhap.
There were growing fears that many of the passengers were trapped inside the sunken ship, though officials said some passengers could have been rescued by private fishing boats.
“Downstairs were restaurants, shops and entertainment rooms, and those who were there are feared to have failed to escape,” he said.
Four people were confirmed dead in total, including a 27-year-old female member of the crew and a student.
The sailor was found dead in the ship while the secondary school student died after being rescued. Some 27 others were taken to hospitals with injuries, including broken bones and burns, officials said.
The ferry set off from the western port of Incheon on Tuesday evening, with its departure delayed by heavy fog. It had been scheduled to arrive in Jeju later on Wednesday, and the schoolchildren were heading on a four-day school outing.
The ship, built in 1994, makes the journey between Incheon and Jeju twice a week, Yonhap reported. It is 146m long and 22m wide, and can carry 921 people, 180 vehicles and 152 shipping containers.
US navy assistance
A US navy amphibious assault ship, equipped with two helicopters, which had been on routine patrol in the Yellow Sea, was at the scene to help, the US seventh fleet said.
“We will try to determine the cause of the accident after rescue operations are over,” second vice home affairs minister Lee Gyeong-og told a news briefing in Seoul, adding that the government would mobilise all available resources to search for the missing.
President Park Geun-hye was immediately briefed on the accident, and she ordered maximum efforts to rescue all of the passengers.
The accident may be the worst since the Seohae ferry sank in 1993, killing 292 of the 362 passengers.
Jeju island is known as “South Korea’s Hawaii”, and it receives 2.3 million foreign tourists every year.
It's the second accident in less than a month involving a ferry from the Chonghaejin Marine Co, after its Democracy No 5 collided with a fishing boat near Incheon late last month.