Nearly 300 missing after South Korea ferry sinks

<i>This post has been updated. See the note below for details.</i>

SEOUL -- The dramatic capsizing of a ferry stunned South Korea on Wednesday as rescuers raced to save 459 people aboard the vessel off the country’s southern coast. By mid-afternoon, however, about 293 people remained unaccounted for and two were confirmed dead, authorities said.

[Updated, 4 a.m. PST April 16: Four people have been confirmed dead, South Korean Coast Guard officials said late Wednesday.]

Television images of the sinking showed the vessel on its side in fairly calm seas, with helicopters overhead. With only part of the hull exposed, emergency personnel used small, inflatable rafts to rescue groups of passengers. Dozens of private vessels went to the scene to assist with the effort.


The vessel had set off from Incheon, on South Korea’s northwest coast, bound for Jeju Island, a popular vacation spot off the southern coast. Among the passengers were 325 students from a high school in Ansan, a suburb south of Seoul, who were headed to Jeju on a school trip with 14 teachers.

The ferry’s departure from Incheon was delayed due to fog, and it left late Tuesday evening. At around 9 a.m. Wednesday, the ship sent out distress calls and began to sink. Passengers reportedly heard a loud sound before the vessel started taking on water.

“There was a big noise, then the ship started going down,” one student, surnamed Yoo, said on South Korea’s YTV network.

President Park Geun-hye called for “maximum efforts” to rescue everyone aboard.

The South Korea navy, army and air force dispatched personnel to rescue passengers from the vessel, a 6,825-ton ferry named Sewol, which was built in Japan in 1994. The ship is operated by Cheonghaejin Shipping Co. and was reportedly built to accommodate 921 passengers. The ship was also carrying 150 cars.

One male student and one female crew member were among the confirmed dead, officials said. An official at Dowon High School, reached by phone, said that although media had reported all the students and teachers being safely rescued, the school hadn’t yet confirmed their status.

Officials announced early on that 368 people had been rescued and that just over 100 were still missing, but by late afternoon authorities upped the estimate of those missing to 293. Officials acknowledged that there had been an error in counting the number that had been rescued.

Underwater rescue efforts were attempted, but poor visibility and murky waters were complicating the efforts of divers seeking survivors, Vice Minister of Security and Public Administration Lee Gyeong-Og said in an afternoon press briefing.

Borowiec is a special correspondent.