SEOUL, South Korea — Nearly 300 people, most of them students, remained unaccounted for Wednesday as coast guard and navy divers continued to search a ferry that sank hours earlier off the southwestern tip of South Korea.
By mid-evening, four people were confirmed dead, including a high school student and a member of the ferry’s crew. But fears that the sinking could become one of the worst peacetime disasters in the country increased as rescued passengers told news outlets that they believed many people had been trapped below deck Wednesday morning.
“We must not give up,” President Park Geun-hye said from the Ministry of Security and Public Administration, which is coordinating the rescue efforts. “We must do our best to rescue even one of those passengers and students who may not have escaped from the ship.”
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Lee Gyeong-og, vice minister of security and public administration, said that 160 navy and coast guard divers were working at the scene, but that their operations were hampered by rapid currents and poor underwater visibility.
Among the passengers were 325 students from Danwon High School in Ansan, south of Seoul. So far, 78 of them are known to have been rescued. The students were on an overnight voyage to Jeju, a popular resort island, where they had been scheduled to arrive Wednesday morning for a four-day field trip and sightseeing.
The Ministry of Security and Public Administration reported that a total of 164 passengers and crew members were known to have been rescued; given the known deaths, that left 291 of the 459 people on the ferry unaccounted for. Earlier in the day, the ministry had issued different figures, including a much lower estimate for the number of missing; it attributed the mistakes to confusing reports from the scene.
The cause of the accident was not immediately clear. The South Korean news media cited unidentified passengers as saying that the ship had begun leaning severely after a loud impact. The ship later capsized and sank, with only its tip protruding from the water.
The 6,825-ton ferry, the Sewol, was sailing from Incheon, a port west of Seoul, to Jeju, roughly 60 miles off the south coast of South Korea, when it sent a distress signal Wednesday morning, setting off the rescue operation. The ship, built in Japan in 1994 and operated by Cheonghaejin Shipping Co. of South Korea, had capacity for 920 passengers.
A 27-year-old female crew member was found dead in the water, and a male student died while being treated at a hospital. Two other victims were later found. Details of their identities were not immediately available.
South Korea has not had a major ferry accident in two decades. The last was in 1994, when a tourist ferry caught fire on a lake, killing 30 people. A year earlier, 292 people died when an overloaded ferry, sailing despite warnings of bad weather, sank off the country’s west coast.
Mr. Lee of the security ministry declined to comment on the likelihood of finding more survivors. But a sharp increase in the death toll was feared as ships, helicopters and divers expanded their search, with no immediate results. Divers were trying to make their way into chambers of the ship where passengers were reported to have been trapped.
The ship’s departure from Incheon on Tuesday evening was delayed by two hours because of heavy fog off the west coast of South Korea, officials said. The ship was also carrying 150 cars and trucks, below the capacity of 180.
Local news media quoted rescued passengers as saying that people in the ferry’s cafeteria and game room, below the main passenger decks, might not have escaped.
“The internal broadcast advised us to remain in our seats,” the national news agency Yonhap quoted a 57-year-old passenger, identified only by his surname, 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.
By the time many passengers tried to escape, it was too late, Kim Seong-muk, a rescued passenger, said in an interview with the all-news cable channel YTN. “People were shouting, ‘break the windows!’ but the water came up too quickly and many could not come outside,” he said.
Kim Tae-young, a student, also remembered seeing many passengers in the cafeteria and game room when the ship began leaning.
“The water rushed in, up to my neck, and it was difficult to climb to the top of the boat because it was badly tilted,” Mr. Kim told News Y, another cable channel. “I saw shipping containers tossed off the ship’s deck and floating in the water. I also saw a vending machine toppled and two girls trapped under it.”
YTN quoted students describing a chaotic scene in which passengers tripped and bumped into one another and luggage was tossed about as the ship leaned deeply and water came in. They said they jumped into the water in life jackets and swam to fishing boats nearby. They were wrapped in blankets and taken to shelters and hospitals in nearby ports.
In a text message shown on the news channel, a student had written: “Dad, I can’t walk out because the ship is tilted too much, and I don’t see anyone in the corridor.”
The ship sank in waters 104 feet, or 32 meters, deep, and the water temperature in the area was about 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius), cold enough to cause hypothermia after about two hours, officials said.
Kim Dong-soo, a truck driver who said he frequently took the ferry to Jeju and who was on the Sewol, told the cable channel News Y that the ship began leaning sharply after it made a sharp turn to the right. It was also sailing much closer to the coast than it usually does, he said.
“I wonder why the rescuers who first got to the ship didn’t do anything about those 100 or 200 I think were trapped inside the ship,” he said. “They were just picking up those already on the top of the ship.”
South Korean television footage showed coast guard helicopters pulling passengers off the ship. Pictures released by the coast guard showed rescue ships and inflatable lifeboats in waters near the ferry. The waters were strewn with debris.
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Did anyone ever get to the bottom of the ferry that sank of the coast of BC? I believe most people, but not all, made it off.