At least 4 dead, 284 missing after ferry sinks off South Korean - Dallas News | myFOXdfw.com

At least 4 dead, 284 missing after ferry sinks off South Korean coast

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South Korean officials said Wednesday that nearly 300 people were still missing several hours after a multi-story passenger ferry sank off that country's southern coast, leaving at least four dead and dozens injured.

The ferry was carrying 459 people, most of them high school students, and was bound for the island of Jeju when it sent a distress call at around 9 a.m. local time Wednesday as it began leaning to one side, according to South Korea's Ministry of Security and Public Administration.

Lee Gyeong-og, a vice minister for South Korea's Public Administration and Security Ministry, said the 459 people included 30 crew members, 325 high school students, 15 teachers and 89 non-student passengers.

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.

He said 164 people were rescued; 55 of them were injured. He said 284 people were missing, likely either trapped inside the ship or floating in the ocean.

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.

"We cannot give up," said South Korean President Park Geun-hye, after a briefing in Seoul with officials. "We have to do our best to rescue even one passenger."

Media photos showed wet students, some without shoes, some wrapped in blankets, tended to by emergency workers. One student, Lim Hyung-min, told broadcaster YTN from a gym on a nearby island 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."

The water temperature in the area was about 12 degrees Celsius, cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 90 minutes or 2 hours, 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.

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.

Local media photographs showed the ship heavily tilted onto its side, partially submerged, as helicopters flew overhead and rescue vessels and a small boat covered with an orange tarp floated nearby.

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.

Some 160 coast guard and navy divers searched for survivors inside the ship's wreckage a few miles from Byeongpung Island, which is not far from the mainland and about 290 miles from Seoul. Cho Man-yong, a coast guard spokesman, said 16 divers approached the ferry Wednesday night but failed to get inside because the current was too strong.

The U.S. Navy said the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard, which was on a routine patrol off South Korea's west coast on Wednesday, would assist in the search and rescue operation.

"We heard a big thumping sound and the boat stopped," a passenger told the YTN news channel by telephone, The Guardian reported. "The boat is tilting and we have to hold on to something to stay seated."

Park Ji-hee, a first-year student, said she saw about a dozen parents crying at the school entrance and many cars and taxies 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 cellphones. Teachers tried to soothe them, saying that the students on the ship would be fine.

Passenger Kim Seong-mok, speaking from a nearby island after his rescue, told YTN that he was "certain" people were trapped inside the ship as water quickly filled up inside and the severe tilt of the ferry kept them from reaching the exits. Some people yelled at those who couldn't get out, urging them 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.

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

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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