Nearly 290 people are still missing many hours after a ferry sank off South Korea’s southwest coast on Wednesday. At least 14 people are confirmed dead and 55 injured.
Officials said there were 475 people on board the ferry, most of them high school pupils, which was heading for the Jeju island when it sent out a distress signal at about 9 a.m. local time Wednesday. According to the security ministry, 179 people were rescued and 282 people were missing. The missing people are likely stuck inside the ferry or drifting in the ocean.
The rescue team has been working hours after the ship first sent a distress signal. South Korea officials said mud on the ocean floor made underwater hunt operations difficult. Some rescued people said many jumped from the ferry into the freezing waters of the Yellow Sea. Authorities could not find the reason that caused the ship to sink. The weather at the time of the occurrence was clear.
Images displayed wet students, some wrapped in blankets, some without shoes, being taken care of by emergency workers. Lim Hyung-min, a student, said that he and other students put on life jackets, jumped into the water, and headed for an adjacent rescue boat.
Local media photos revealed the ship severely listed to one side, partly underwater, as helicopters hovered in the air and rescue vessels and a tiny boat covered with an orange tarp floated close by.
According to a security ministry official, 160 navy divers and coast guard were searching for survivors, and 87 vessels and 18 aircraft were in operation. The U.S. Navy ship the USS Bonhomme Richard joined the rescue team on Wednesday.
After the sinking of the South Korea ferry Sewol divers were deployed to search for people inside the ship’s wreck, a few miles from the shore of Byeongpung Island, which is close to the main land. The area is around 290 miles from Seoul.
Park Ji-hee, a rescued first-year student, said she saw nearly a dozen parents crying at the school entry and several taxis and cars gathered at the entrance as she left in the morning. She said a few students in her school started to cry as they watched the news on their mobile phones. Teachers tried to calm them, trying to assure them that the students on the ship would be fine.
One passenger said that after finishing breakfast he felt the ferry lean and then heard it smash into something. He said the ferry operator made an announcement asking the passengers to wait and not move from their places, but did not hear any announcement saying passengers to run away.
The ferry was carrying 325 students, 30 crew members, 15 teachers, and 89 other passengers. The students were from Ansan Danwon High School in Seoul. They left for a four-day tour to Jeju from the port city of Incheon, west of Seoul. The resort island is known as the Hawaii of Korea.
The South Korea ferry disaster, with nearly 290 missing, is not the first in the country’s history. Two earlier fatal ferry tragedies also occurred: one in 1970 when 323 people drowned, and another in 1993 when 292 people died.
By Rahad Abir