Seoul: Coast guard and navy divers were searching a ferry on Wednesday after it sank off the south-western tip of South Korea while carrying hundreds of high school students to a resort island, leaving at least two people dead.
The South Korean Ministry of Security and Public Administration said Wednesday afternoon that 368 people were known to have been rescued. Taking into account the two deaths, that left 107 of the 477 passengers and crew members unaccounted for.
However the figure for people rescued was later retracted and officials said as many as 295 people were still unaccounted for.
Lee Gyeong-og, a vice-minister in charge of the central government’s emergency response team, said that the actual number of people rescued could be higher, since many passengers had been picked up by fishing boats and taken to different ports on the islands scattered in the region.
But the national news agency Yonhap quoted one rescued passenger as saying that people in the ferry’s cafeteria and games room below the main passenger decks might not have escaped.
“The internal broadcast advised us to remain in our seats,” Yonhap quoted the 57-year-old passenger, which it identified only by his last name, Yoo, as saying. “But I could not stay put because the water was coming up. So I came outside with my life jacket on.”
“I wonder why they didn’t tell us to evacuate immediately,” he added.
The cause of the accident was not immediately clear. South Korean media cited unnamed passengers rescued from the ship as saying that the ship had begun tilting severely after a loud impact. The ship later capsized and sank, with only its tip protruding from the water.
The 6825-tonne ferry, the Sewol, was sailing from Incheon, west of Seoul, to the resort island of Jeju, which is 100 kilometres off the south coast of South Korea, on Wednesday morning when it sent a distress signal, triggering the rescue operation. Among the passengers were 325 students from Danwon High School in Ansan, south of Seoul.
Parents gathered at the Ansan school waiting for news. Others were rushing to ports in southwestern South Korea hoping to meet their children there. Some of them learned of the accident when their children called them from the ship. Local television showed students who had not joined the trip weeping at the news.
One 27-year-old female crew member was found dead in the water. Another person, male, died while being treated at a hospital.
New York Times, AFP