SEOUL -- As a ferry carrying 462 people slowly sank off South Korea’s southern coast Wednesday, a high school student sent a heartbreaking cellphone text message.
“Mom,” it said, “This might be my last chance to tell you I love you.”
The mother messaged back with her love -- but received no response.
In the emotional aftermath of the disaster, a screen grab of the exchange went viral. By late Wednesday, authorities had confirmed four passengers killed, 55 injured and more than 280 missing -- most of them high school students on what was meant to be a fun trip to a tourist island.
Many now fear for the lives of those students and others aboard the ferry. Television footage showed the ferry lying on its side in fairly calm seas, with helicopters overhead. With only part of the hull exposed, rescue workers used small, inflatable rafts to pluck passengers from the water.
Dozens of private ships joined in the effort. Authorities announced that the U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard, on a routine patrol in the Yellow Sea, was also on the way to help.
The cause of the sinking is not yet known. The ferry’s departure from the port city of Incheon to Jeju island was delayed by fog, but the sea was reportedly calm. Passengers said they heard a loud noise before the ferry started sinking shortly before 9 a.m., raising speculation that it had run aground.
A passenger identified as Kim Sung-mook told South Korean broadcaster YTN that he was eating breakfast when he heard a loud bang, and the ship suddenly lurched on its side. At first, he thought some heavy equipment had toppled over on the deck.
“The students were falling over onto each other and bleeding,” Kim said.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye called for “maximum efforts” to rescue “even one more person” aboard.
The South Korean navy, army, air force and coast guard all dispatched personnel to help with the effort.
Military divers were searching for survivors who might be trapped inside the ferry. But the water was murky and visibility was poor, according to Lee Gyeong-og, a vice minister of public administration and security who addressed an afternoon news briefing.
Survivors were being taken to a gymnasium on nearby Jindo island, where students could be reunited with their parents.
The 6,825-ton ferry, Sewol, was built in Japan in 1994 and was operated by the South Korea-based Cheonghaejin Marine Co. It could reportedly accommodate up to 921 passengers and was also carrying 150 cars.
Officials initially announced that 368 people had been rescued and just over 100 were missing. But in the late afternoon, they acknowledged they had made a counting error.
The 325 students and 15 teachers aboard were from Danwon High School in Ansan city, near the capital, Seoul.
Despite some media reports that they had been rescued, a school official reached by phone said the school had not yet confirmed the safety of its staff and students.
Many South Koreans vacation in the islands that surround the peninsula, traveling by ferry to reach them. Accidents are not common. This could be one of the worst ferry disasters since 1993, when a vessel capsized off South Korea’s western coast, killing 292 people.
Borowiec is a special correspondent.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times