MOKPO, South Korea — A ferry carrying 462 people, mostly high school students on an overnight trip to a tourist island, sank off South Korea’s southern coast yesterday, leaving more than 280 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.
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 last night but failed to get inside because the current was too strong. He said the water was very muddy, and visibility was poor, but navy and coast guard divers planned to make another approach after midnight.