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292 missing, 4 dead in South Korea ferry disaster

- Apr. 16, 2014 6:53 AM EDT

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - A ferry carrying 459 people, mostly high school students on an overnight trip to a tourist island, sank off South Korea's southern coast on Wednesday, leaving nearly 300 people missing despite a frantic, hours-long rescue by dozens of ships and helicopters. At least four people were confirmed dead and 55 injured.

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.

Passenger Ferry Sinks in South Korea

Those rescued - wet, stunned and many without shoes - were brought to nearby Jindo Island, where medical teams wrapped them in pink blankets and checked them for injuries before settling them down on the floor of a cavernous gymnasium hall.

The ship had set sail from Incheon, a city in South Korea's northwest and the site of the country's main international airport, on Tuesday night for an overnight, 14-hour journey to the tourist island of Jeju.

Three hours from its destination, the ferry sent a distress call at about 9 a.m. Wednesday after it began listing to one side, according to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration. Officials didn't know what caused it to sink and said the focus was still on rescuing survivors.

Lee Gyeong-og, a vice minister for South Korea's Public Administration and Security Ministry, said 30 crew members, 325 high school students, 15 school teachers and 89 non-student passengers were aboard the ship.

Kang Byung-kyu, a government minister, said two of the dead were a female crew member and a male high school student. He said a third body was also believed to be that of a student. A coast guard officer confirmed a fourth fatality but had no immediate details about it.

Kang said 164 people were rescued, of whom 55 were injured. Officials said 292 people were missing.

Yonhap news agency said the 146-meter (480-foot) -long ship, which travels twice a week between Incheon and Jeju, was built in Japan in 1994 and could carry a maximum of 921 people, 180 vehicles and 152 shipping containers.

The water temperature in the area was about 12 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit), cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 1½ hours of exposure, according to an emergency official who spoke on condition of anonymity citing department rules. Officials said mud on the ocean floor made underwater search operations difficult. Lee, the vice minister, said the ocean is 37 meters (121 feet) deep in the area.

Passenger Kim Seong-mok told YTN that he was certain that many people were trapped inside the ferry as water quickly rushed in and the severe tilt of the vessel kept them from reaching the exits. Some people urged those who couldn't get out to break windows.

Kim said that after having breakfast he felt the ferry tilt and then heard it crash into something. He said the ferry operator made an announcement asking that passengers wait and not move from their places. Kim said he didn't hear any announcement telling passengers to escape.

The students - half of them boys and half girls- are from Danwon High School in Ansan city, which is near Seoul, and were on their way to Jeju island for a four-day trip, according to a relief team set up by Gyeonggi province, which governs the city. There are faster ways to get to Jeju, but some people take the ferry from Incheon because it is cheaper than flying. Many South Korean high schools organize trips for students in their first or second years, and Jeju is a popular destination. The students on the ferry were in their second year, which would make most of them 16 or 17.

At the high school, students were sent home and parents gathered for news about the ferry.

Park Ji-hee, a first-year student, said she saw about a dozen parents crying at the school entrance and many cars and taxis gathered at the gate as she left in the morning.

She said some students in her classroom began to cry as they saw the news on their handsets. Teachers tried to soothe them, saying that the students on the ferry would be fine.

The Maritime Ministry said the two previous deadliest ferry disasters were in 1970 when 323 people drowned and in 1993 when 292 people died.

Join the discussion

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blclou80 April 16 2014 at 10:24 AM

Are we sure N Korea did not have something to do with this ????????

Flag Reply +3 rate up
Natasha April 16 2014 at 12:44 PM

why are we talking about weather S Korea is third world country or not! They had a disaster most of the children are gone! What a horrible death to be trapped inside the boat..

Flag Reply +1 rate up
glopro78 April 16 2014 at 9:55 AM

Am I the only one that read the entire article? It was not overloaded, but only at about 1/2 capacity. A passenger stated he felt an impact just after breakfast and was told to stay put...

Flag Reply +2 rate up
jmcbud614 April 16 2014 at 9:51 AM

It's hard for me to understand how so many people can make light of such a tragic situation & as far as NYJOK46 you should find some place else to entertain yourself because your comments are as stupid as you are!!!!

Flag Reply +5 rate up
injai April 16 2014 at 11:06 AM

Tragic!!! Shocked. In pain. Worried. Hard to bear. Prayers to South Korea and all their loved ones. May they find more survivors. Hoping. Praying.

Flag Reply +6 rate up
Normie Baby April 16 2014 at 11:15 AM

Sooo hard to read about this. My heart breaks for the families.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
nyc38 April 16 2014 at 12:00 PM

What a sad story ...RIP to those that died. Hopefully they will find the remaining passengers .

Flag Reply +5 rate up
hyperfricky April 16 2014 at 9:30 AM

How horrible. I hope that those missing found a spot in the boat that is dry and are hanging on until they can get to them. I can't imagine it taking an hour and a half before hypothermia sets in. I did a polar plunge into 34 degree water...I was in it for all 30 seconds and my brain and motor skills had already stopped working properly. 54 degrees is warmer...but not by that much. Fingers crossed they find more survivors and it doesn't turn into just a recovery mission.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
tgibson209 April 16 2014 at 11:58 AM

This is so sad. My heart goes out to the families.

Flag Reply +6 rate up
harveyarw April 16 2014 at 11:33 AM

I have family in S. Korea and they are not a third world nation. They are very kind and generous and love their families. This tragic event is so sad and no matter what the cause, they should be in our prayers.

Flag Reply +9 rate up
1 reply
obloodyblada harveyarw April 16 2014 at 11:45 AM

It is truly a tragic event.

I agree that Korea isn't a third world nation. The problem is that so many Koreans come to the US and ACT like they are from a third world nation. They are disrespectful. They litter. They resent Americans. etc. etc .etc.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
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