Coast guard crews search for survivors after the South Korean ferry capsized near the island of Byungpoong on Wednesday morning. (AFP)
Seoul, April 16: Nearly 300 people, most of them students, remained unaccounted for today as coast guard and navy divers continued to search a ferry that sank hours earlier off the southwestern tip of South Korea.
By mid-evening, four persons were confirmed dead, including a high school student and a member of the ferry’s crew. But fears that the sinking could become one of the worst peacetime disasters in South Korea increased as rescued passengers told news outlets that they believed many people had been trapped below deck this morning.
“We must not give up,” President Park Geun-hye said from the ministry of security and public administration, which is coordinating the rescue efforts. “We must do our best to rescue even one of those passengers and students who may not have escaped from the ship.”
Lee Gyeong-og, vice-minister of security and public administration, said that 160 navy and coast guard divers were working at the scene, but that their operations were hampered by rapid currents and poor underwater visibility.
Among the passengers were 325 students from Danwon High School in Ansan, south of Seoul. So far, 78 of them are known to have been rescued. The students were on an overnight voyage to Jeju, a popular resort island, where they had been scheduled to arrive this morning for a four-day field trip and sightseeing.
The ministry of security and public administration reported that a total of 164 passengers and crew members were known to have been rescued; given the known deaths, that left 291 of the 459 people on the ferry unaccounted for.
Earlier in the day, the ministry had issued different figures, including a much lower estimate for the number of missing; it attributed the mistakes to confusing reports from the scene.
The cause of the accident was not immediately clear. The South Korean news media cited unidentified passengers as saying that the ship had begun leaning severely after a loud impact. The ship later capsized and sank, with only its tip protruding from the water.
The 6,191-tonne ferry, the Sewol, was sailing from Incheon, a port west of Seoul, to Jeju, roughly 96km off the south coast of South Korea, when it sent a distress signal this morning, setting off the rescue operation. The ship, built in Japan in 1994 and operated by Cheonghaejin Shipping Co. of South Korea, had capacity for 920 passengers.
A 27-year-old female crew member was found dead in the water, and a male student died while being treated at a hospital. Two other victims were later found. South Korea has not had a major ferry accident in two decades.