Tragedy as ferry sinks in S Korea
South Korean rescuers and dive teams worked frantically under floodlights as fears rose for nearly 300 people missing after a ferry sank yesterday 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-tonne Sewol listed violently, capsized and finally sank -- all within two hours of sending a distress signal at 9:00am.
"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 kilometres 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.
The passengers included 325 students from a high school in Ansan just south of Seoul, who were travelling 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.
The US 7th Fleet sent an amphibious assault ship on patrol in the area to help.
The cause of the accident in fine weather was not immediately clear, although rescued passengers reported the ferry coming to a sudden, shuddering halt -- indicating it may have run aground.
"I heard a big thumping sound and the boat suddenly started to tilt," one rescued student said.
Another spoke of luggage and vending machines crashing down on passengers as the vessel tipped over.
Three giant floating cranes had been despatched to the site and would begin operations to raise the submerged vessel tomorrow, officials said.
Scores of ferries ply the waters between the South Korean mainland and its multiple offshore islands every day, and accidents are relatively rare.
In one of the worst incidents, nearly 300 people died when a ferry capsized off the west coast in October 1993.