News Asia-Pacific

Wednesday 1 October 2014

South Korea ferry: Search for survivors as hundreds feared dead

Andrew Salmon in Seoul and Hannah Strange in Seoul

Published 17/04/2014 | 01:48

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Rescue helicopters fly over a sinking South Korean passenger ferry that was carrying more than 450 passengers, mostly high school students off South Korea's southern coast. AP
Rescue helicopters fly over a sinking South Korean passenger ferry that was carrying more than 450 passengers, mostly high school students off South Korea's southern coast. AP
A family member of a missing passenger who was on the South Korean ferry 'Sewol' which sank in the sea off Jindo cries as she waits for a rescue team's arrival at a port in Jindo. Reuters
A family member of a missing passenger who was on the South Korean ferry 'Sewol' which sank in the sea off Jindo cries as she waits for a rescue team's arrival at a port in Jindo. Reuters
A partially sunken ferry is seen off South Korea's southwest coast in this still image from a video released by the South Korean coast guard. Reuters
A partially sunken ferry is seen off South Korea's southwest coast in this still image from a video released by the South Korean coast guard. Reuters

Six confirmed dead as officials say those inside wreck unlikely to have survived, amid suggestions passengers - including 325 school pupils - were told to stay below deck as ship sank

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Naval divers were searching the wreck of a ferry that sank off South Korea with hundreds of school pupils on board, as fears deepened that many of the 300 missing passengers may have died after being trapped inside.

Hopes of finding survivors were fading as night fell over the cold waters off the country’s southern coast. “I’m afraid there’s little chance for those trapped inside still to be alive,” Cho Yang-Bok, a rescue team official, told YTN television.

Parents of the pupils – most thought to be aged 16 and 17 – wept as they gathered at the school in Ansan city near Seoul desperate for news of their children.

There were suggestions from survivors that the ferry operator had told passengers to stay in their positions as the ship sank, ending any chance of escape.

Six were confirmed dead, but what at first appeared to be an impressive rescue effort threatened to become a major maritime disaster as an early tally of 100 missing tripled after a revision by South Korean officials.

The US Navy sent the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard to join the operation, as authorities said that mud on the seabed was complicating the underwater search.

The Sewol ferry was carrying 459 people, of whom 164 have been rescued. It was not immediately clear why it listed heavily and capsized in apparently calm and clear conditions, but some survivors spoke of an impact before the accident. “It was fine.

Then the ship went 'boom’ and there was a noise of cargo falling,” said Cha Eun-ok, who was on the deck taking photographs at the time. Another survivor, a male pupil, said passengers had been told to stay in their seats before the vessel listed sharply, causing panic. “The crew kept telling us not to move,” he said. “Then it suddenly shifted over and people slid to one side and it became very difficult to get out.”

Another student, Lim Hyung-min, said he and other passengers jumped into the sea. “As the ferry was shaking and tilting, we all tripped and bumped into each another,” he said, adding that some people were bleeding. Once he jumped, the ocean “was so cold. ... I was hurrying, thinking that I wanted to live”.

At least 87 vessels and 18 aircraft swarmed around the stricken ferry. Rescuers clambered over its sides, pulling out passengers. The ship then overturned completely and continued to sink slowly. Within a few hours, only its blue-and-white bow stuck out of the water. Soon, that too disappeared.

Survivors were taken to nearby Jindo Island, where medical teams wrapped them in blankets and checked them for injuries in a large gymnasium. One woman lay on a bed shaking uncontrollably. A man wailed as he spoke on his mobile telephone.

The teenagers and teachers from Danwon High School in Ansan city were on a field trip to Jeju island, about 60 miles south of the Korean peninsula. The ferry – built in Japan in 1994 – had sailed from Incheon, the main port for Seoul, on Tuesday night for an overnight, 14-hour journey to the tourist island of Jeju.

At 9am on Tuesday, three hours from its destination and 300 miles from the capital, it sent a distress call after it began listing, according to the ministry of security and public administration.

Lee Gyeong-og, a vice-minister for security and public administration, said 30 crew members, 325 high school students, 15 school teachers and 89 non-student passengers were on board the ship.

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