Ferry Disaster: 'Almost no chance of 300 survivors'

25 people confirmed dead as rescuers battle high waves and recover more bodies

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Emotions boiled over Thursday in the frantic search for almost 300 people - mostly schoolchildren - missing from a capsized South Korean ferry, with angry parents confronting President Park Geun-Hye as prospects dwindled of finding survivors.

Worsening weather fuelled the sombre mood, with persistent rain and choppy seas hindering dive teams already struggling with low visibility and strong currents.

Twenty-five people were confirmed dead, the coastguard said late Thursday, as rescuers battled high waves and recovered more bodies.

But with every hour that passed fears mounted for the 271 still unaccounted for after the multi-deck vessel with 475 on board suddenly listed, capsized and then sank within the space of 90 minutes on Wednesday morning.

"Honestly, I think the chances of finding anyone alive are close to zero," a coastguard official told an AFP journalist on one of the boats at the site.

The coastguard said more than 500 divers, 169 vessels and 29 aircraft were now involved in the rescue operation.

But distraught relatives gathered in a gymnasium on nearby Jindo island insisted more should be done, and vented their frustration when the president came to inspect the rescue effort.

"What are you doing when people are dying? Time is running out!" one woman screamed as Park tried to address the volatile crowd with her security detail standing by nervously.

A total of 375 high school students were on board, travelling with their teachers to the popular island resort of Jeju.

When Prime Minister Chung Hong-Won visited the gymnasium earlier in the day, he was jostled and shouted at, and water bottles were thrown.

'Don't run, prime minister!'

"Don't run away, Mr. Prime Minister!" one mother said, blocking Chung as he tried to leave. "Please tell us what you're planning to do."

The coastguard said 179 people had been rescued.

The tragedy has stunned a country whose rapid modernisation was thought to have consigned such large-scale accidents to the past.

If the missing are confirmed dead it would become one of South Korea's worst peacetime disasters - all the more traumatic for the number of children involved.

US President Barack Obama, who will be in Seoul on April 25 and 26, offered his "deepest sympathies" to the victims' families.

"Our hearts ache to see our Korean friends going through such a terrible loss, especially the loss of so many young students," he said.

It was still unclear what caused the 6,825-tonne Sewol to sink.

Numerous passengers spoke of a loud thud and the vessel coming to an abrupt, shuddering halt - suggesting it had run aground or hit a submerged object.

But the captain, Lee Joon-Seok, who survived and was being questioned by investigators, insisted it had not hit any rocks.

Pulling a hood over his head and face as he was surrounded by camera crews in the coastguard offices, Lee mumbled an apology.

"I feel really sorry for the passengers, victims and families," he said.

Other experts suggested the ferry cargo, which included 150 cars, might have suddenly shifted, irretrievably destabilising the vessel.

Distressing mobile phone footage taken by one survivor showed the panic on board with one woman desperately screaming "The water's coming, the water's coming!"

There was growing public anger over multiple survivor testimony that passengers had been ordered to stay in their seats and cabins when the ferry first foundered.

"We must have waited 30 to 40 minutes after the crew told us to stay put," said one rescued student.

"Then everything tilted over and everyone started screaming and scrambling to get out," he said.

Rescuers said they feared hundreds had been unable to escape the vessel because of the speed at which it overturned.

Regional coastguard commander Kim Soo-Hyun told a press briefing that "investigations were under way" into reports that the captain and crew were among the first to leave the stricken vessel.

Among the confirmed dead were three students, one teacher and a crew member. 

Three foreigners - one Russian and two Chinese - were listed among the missing.

Divers 'risking their lives'

The strength of the currents faced by the divers was underlined by the fact that the ship had drifted several kilometres (miles) since going down.

Chung Dong-Nam, the head of one civilian diving team at the site, said three of his men had to be rescued after being swept out to sea.

"We've tried repeatedly to get into the ship but the waves and currents are too powerful," Chung told the YTN news channel.

"These men are risking their lives."

Before her tense meeting with parents of the missing children, Park took a boat to the rescue site where she appealed to the dive teams to keep working despite the dangers.

"Time is running out. Please hurry," the president said. "If there are survivors, every minute and second is critical."

If the current toll rises as feared, it could end as the nation's biggest disaster since a Seoul department store collapsed in 1995, killing more than 500 people.

Fury as many were denied proper chance to escape

National shock at a ferry disaster that may have killed hundreds of South Korean schoolchildren was mixed with fury Thursday over growing evidence that many passengers were denied a proper chance to escape.
 
Multiple survivor testimony highlighted the fact that passengers were repeatedly told to stay in their seats or cabins when the ferry first ran into trouble on Wednesday morning.
 
Those who obeyed found their possible escape route severely compromised after the vessel suddenly listed sharply to the port side, triggering total panic.
 
One survivor named Kim Sung-Mook said he had struggled to rescue around 30 high school students unable to escape from a large open hall on the fourth level of the ship.
 
"I couldn't even get into the hall because the whole thing was leaning over so badly," Kim said.
 
"The ship was going underwater and there was nothing for them to hold on to with their hands. They couldn't crawl up the floor because it was wet and at such a sharp angle," he said.
 
Using a fire hose he managed to pull a few to safety, "but there were so many of them... I couldn't help them all."
 
One student who was rescued said most passengers had remained in their seat for "30 to 40 minutes" after the ferry first foundered, in line with instructions from crew members and over the internal tannoy system.
 
"The message was repeated again and again: 'Stay put. Don't move'," said another survivor, Huh Young-Ki.
 
"We were asking ourselves: 'Shouldn't we move? Shouldn't we try and get out?' But the announcement was saying help would be there in 10 minutes," Huh told the News Y television channel.
 
- 'Most stayed put as they were told' -
 
Discipline is strict in the South Korean education system and authority rarely flouted, leaving observers to conclude that most of the 375 high school students on the ferry, in their late teens, would probably have obeyed any official commands without question.
 
"If only we had been told to get out earlier, then more of us would have been able to jump into the sea," one student who managed to escape told the MBC TV channel.
 
"But most people just stayed put as they were told," she added.
 
Once the 6,825-tonne vessel Sewol had begun to list, it soon ended up at a 90 degree angle to the water, before inverting completely and sinking with only a small section of the keel showing above water.
 
With only 179 rescued so far, the fear is that most of the 287 still unaccounted for were trapped inside the ship as it submerged.
 
The suggestion that many more should have been able to escape has added to the anguish of  relatives and fuelled anger in a country unused to a disaster of this scale, especially one involving its efficient and modern transport infrastructure.
 
Most South Koreans believe they have left behind the sort of accidents that regularly blight developing countries.
 
With the exception of a subway station fire in 2003 that claimed 192 lives, there have been no large-scale disasters for nearly two decades.
A Seoul department store collapsed in 1995, killing more than 500 people, while nearly 300 people died when a ferry capsized off the west coast in 1993.
- 'One man was screaming for help' -The captain of the Sewol, Lee Joon-Seok, was among those who escaped the ferry before it sank and was being questioned by investigators on Thursday.
 
Bae Min-Hoon, the head of Korea Maritime Security Association, said it appeared the evacuation had been badly handled.
 
"It seems that precious first hour or so was wasted by the instruction for passengers to stay in their cabins," Bae said.
 
One 61-year-old woman escaped after ignoring the advice to remain in her cabin, which she said was still being relayed as it filled with water.
 
"I swam for a while and then managed to crawl to an upper deck and then to a window where other people were clinging on," she told reporters from a hospital where she was recovering.
 
"One man was slamming on the window screaming for help, and then a rescue boat came up and they smashed the window in and pulled us out," she said.
 
Chung Yong-Hyun, head of the Korea Diving Industry Institute, said it would have been "nearly impossible" for passengers to move around once the ship had tilted 90 degrees.
 
"The floor becomes the wall and the wall becomes the floor. With the power gone and everything pitch-black, it would have been extremely difficult for anyone to figure out where to go," Chung told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

 

Earlier: South Korean ferry sinks, with 6 confirmed dead and 290 missing, many of them students

Koo Bon-hee could see the exit. For half an hour, as the doomed ferry filled with water and listed severely on its side, the crew told passengers to wait for rescuers.

With their breathing room disappearing, the 36-year-old businessman and some of the other passengers floated to an exit and swam to a nearby fishing boat. But 290 of the 475 people aboard — many of them high school students on a class trip — were still missing after the ferry sank Wednesday off the southern coast of South Korea. Six were confirmed dead and 55 were injured.

Early Thursday, divers, helicopters and boats continued to search for survivors from the ferry, which slipped beneath the surface until only the blue-tipped, forward edge of the keel was visible. The high number of people unaccounted for — possibly trapped in the ship or floating in the chilly water nearby — raised fears that the death toll could increase drastically.

It was still unknown why the ferry sank, and the coast guard was interviewing the captain and crew. The Sewol, a 146-meter (480-foot) vessel that can hold more than 900 people, set sail Tuesday from Incheon, in northwestern South Korea, on an overnight, 14-hour journey to the tourist island of Jeju.

About 9am Wednesday, when it was three hours from Jeju, the ferry sent a distress call after it began listing to one side, according to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration.

Passenger Kim Seong-mok told broadcaster YTN that after having breakfast, he felt the ferry tilt and then heard it crash into something. He said an announcement told passengers to not move from their places and that he never heard another about evacuating.

He said he was certain that many people were trapped inside the ferry as water rushed in and the severe tilt of the vessel kept them from reaching the exits.

Koo also complained about the crew's efforts during the initial stages of the disaster, saying early misjudgments may account for the large number of missing.

In addition to the order not to evacuate immediately, Koo said many people were trapped inside by windows that were too hard to break.

"The rescue wasn't done well. We were wearing life jackets. We had time," Koo, who was on a business trip to Jeju with a co-worker, said from a hospital bed in Mokpo, the nearest major city to the site of the accident, where he was treated for minor injuries. "If people had jumped into the water ... they could have been rescued. But we were told not to go out."

Oh-Yong-seok, a 58-year-old crew member who escaped with about a dozen others, including the captain, told The Associated Press that rescue efforts were hampered by the ferry's severe tilt.

"We couldn't even move one step. The slope was too big," Oh said.

Student Lim Hyung-min told YTN that he and others jumped into the water wearing life jackets and then swam to a nearby rescue boat.

"As the ferry was shaking and tilting, we all tripped and bumped into each another," Lim said, adding that some people were bleeding. Once he jumped, the ocean "was so cold. ... I was hurrying, thinking that I wanted to live."

Dozens of coast guard and navy divers searched for survivors around the Sewol's wreckage a little north of Byeongpung Island, which is not far from the mainland and about 470 kilometers (290 miles) from Seoul.

Coast guard spokesman Cho Man-yong said 16 divers could not get inside the ferry Wednesday night because the current was too strong. The water was muddy and visibility was poor, he said, but divers would try again Thursday morning.

"We cannot give up," said South Korean President Park Geun-hye, after a briefing in Seoul. "We have to do our best to rescue even one passenger."

The last major ferry disaster in South Korea was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.

TV stations broadcast live pictures Wednesday of the listing Sewol as passengers clambered over the side, jumped into the sea or were hoisted up by helicopters. At least 87 vessels and 18 aircraft swarmed around the stricken ferry.

The water temperature in the area was about 12 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit), cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 1½ hours of exposure, according to an emergency official who spoke on condition of anonymity because department rules did not allow talking to the media.

Lee Gyeong-og, a vice minister for the Public Administration and Security Ministry, said the ocean was 37 meters (121 feet) deep in the area.

The survivors — wet, stunned and many without shoes — were brought to nearby Jindo Island, where medical teams wrapped them in pink blankets and checked for injuries before taking them to a cavernous gymnasium.

As the search dragged on, families of the missing gathered at a nearby dock, some crying and holding each other. Boats circled the sunken ferry into the night, illuminated by red flares.

Angry shouts could be heard when Prime Minister Chung Hong-won visited a shelter where relatives of the missing passengers waited for news. Some yelled that the government should have sent more divers to search the wreckage.

The numbers of passengers, as well as the dead and missing, fluctuated throughout the day. As of early Thursday, South Korean authorities estimated 475 people were on the ferry.

Of that total, there were 325 students and 15 teachers from Danwon High School in Ansan, a city near Seoul. They were headed to Jeju for a four-day trip, according to a relief team set up by Gyeonggi province.

Authorities said the dead included a female member of the crew and two male students. A coast guard officer confirmed three other fatalities but had few details about them. Kang Byung-kyu, a government minister, said 55 people were injured. Coast guard officials put the number of survivors early Thursday at 179.

Many South Korean high schools organize trips for first- or second-year students, and Jeju is a popular destination. The students on the ferry were in their second year, which would make most of them 16 or 17.

At Danwon High School, students were sent home early and parents gathered for news about their children. Park Ji-hee, a first-year student, said she saw about a dozen parents crying at the school entrance.

There are faster ways to get to Jeju, but the ferry from Incheon is cheaper than flying.

The Sewol, which travels twice a week between Incheon and Jeju, was built in Japan in 1994 and could carry a maximum of 921 people, 180 vehicles and 152 shipping containers, according to the Yonhap news agency.


Rescuers work frantically

South Korean rescuers and dive teams worked frantically under floodlights as fears rose for nearly 300 people missing after a ferry sank Wednesday with 462 on board, mostly high school students bound for a holiday island.

Click to see gallery of Scores missing as ferry sinks

 

National disaster agency officials said 174 people had been rescued, leaving 284 "unaccounted for". There were four confirmed deaths, including a female crew member and a student.

There are concerns the death toll could rise sharply. The 6,825-tonne Sewol listed violently, capsized and finally sank -- all within two hours of sending a distress signal at 9:00am (0000 GMT).

"I'm afraid there's little chance for those trapped inside still to be alive," one senior rescue team official, Cho Yang-Bok, told YTN television as divers struggled to access the submerged multi-deck ferry.

Dramatic television footage showed terrified passengers wearing life jackets clambering into inflatable boats with water lapping over the rails of the vessel as it sank 20 kilometres (13 miles) off the southern island of Byungpoong.

Some slid down the steeply inclined side of the ferry and into the water as rescuers, including the crew of what appeared to be a small fishing boat, pulled them to safety.

As night fell the coastguard said the rescue operation was continuing using floodlights and underwater flares.

"We won't give up, although the situation is extremely worrying," a coastguard spokesman said.

Several rescued passengers said they had initially been told to remain in their cabins and seats, but then the ferry listed hard to one side, triggering panic.

-- Told 'not to move' --

"The crew kept telling us not to move and to stay seated," one male survivor told the YTN news channel.

"Then it suddenly shifted over and people slid to one side and it became very difficult to get out," he added.

Lee's ministry earlier announced that 368 people had been rescued -- a mistake it attributed to conflicting information from multiple sources.

Of the 429 passengers on board the ferry bound for the popular southern resort island of Jeju, more than 300 were students travelling with 14 teachers from a high school in Ansan just south of Seoul.

Among those confirmed as rescued, 78 were students.

"I feel so pained to see students on a school trip... face such a tragic accident. I want you to pour all your energy into this mission," President Park Geun-Hye said on a visit to the main disaster agency situation room in Seoul.

Many of the survivors were plucked out of the water by fishing and other commercial vessels who were first on the scene before a flotilla of coastguard and navy ships arrived, backed by more than a dozen helicopters.

Lee said 178 divers, including a team of South Korean navy SEALS, were searching the submerged vessel.

"There is so much mud in the sea water and the visibility is very low," he said, adding that strong currents were also hampering the rescuers.

The US 7th Fleet said an amphibious assault ship, the USS Bonhomme Richard which was on routine patrol west of the Korean peninsula, was being sent to help.

The cause of the accident was not immediately clear, although rescued passengers reported the ferry coming to a sudden, shuddering halt -- indicating it may have run aground.

The weather was described as "fine" with moderate winds and sea swell.

One local official, who had taken a boat to the site and arrived an hour after the distress signal was sent, said he was "very concerned" about those still missing.

"The ship was already almost totally submerged when I got there. A lot of people must have been trapped," the official, who declined to be identified, told AFP by phone.

The water temperature was cold at around 12.6 degrees Celsius (55 Fahrenheit).

- 'A big thumping sound' -

"I heard a big thumping sound and the boat suddenly started to tilt," one rescued student told YTN by telephone.

Another spoke of luggage and vending machines crashing down on passengers as the vessel tipped over.

"Everyone was screaming and a lot of people were bleeding badly," he said.

Distraught parents gathered at the high school in Ansan, desperate for news, with some yelling at school officials while others frantically tried to call their children's mobiles.

"I talked to my daughter. She said she had been rescued along with 10 other students," one mother told the YTN news channel.

"They said they had jumped into the water before getting rescued," she said.

Survivors wrapped in blankets were taken to a gymnasium on nearby Jindo island, where a number of tearful parents had already arrived.

Three giant floating cranes had been despatched to the site and would begin operations to raise the submerged vessel tomorrow, officials said.

Scores of ferries ply the waters between the South Korean mainland and its multiple offshore islands every day, and accidents are relatively rare.

In one of the worst incidents, nearly 300 people died when a ferry capsized off the west coast in October 1993.

Hundreds of kids on school trip missing

South Korea said on Wednesday that two people were killed and more than 100 missing after a ferry capsized at sea with 477 people on board - mostly high school students bound for a holiday island.

"So far, 368 have been rescued," Lee Gyeong-Og, the vice minister of security and public administration, told a press briefing in Seoul.

Officials voiced concern over the fate of the 107 people unaccounted for, fearing that many may have been trapped as the vessel listed sharply and capsized within two hours of sending a distress signal at 9:00am (0000 GMT).

Dramatic television aerial footage showed terrified passengers wearing life jackets clambering into inflatable boats as water lapped over the rails of the vessel as it sank.

Some could be seen sliding down the steeply inclined side of the ferry and into the water, as rescuers, including the crew of what appeared to be a small fishing boat, struggled to pull them to safety.

Of the 448 passengers on board the ferry which had been bound for the popular southern resort island of Jeju, 324 were students travelling with 14 teachers from a high school in Ansan, just south of Seoul.

Lee's ministry said two people had been confirmed dead, including one male student and one female crew member.

Many appeared to have been rescued by fishing and other commercial vessels who were first on the scene before a flotilla of coastguard and navy ships arrived, backed by helicopters.

Lee said divers, including a team of South Korean navy SEALS, were continuing to search the submerged vessel.

"There is so much mud in the sea water and the visibility is very low," he added.

The 6,825-tonne ferry, which had sailed out of the western port of Incheon on Tuesday evening, ran into trouble some 20 kilometres (13 miles) off the southern island of Byungpoong.

'A really loud noise'

The cause of the accident was not immediately clear, although rescued passengers reported the ferry coming to a sudden, shuddering halt -- indicating it may have run aground.

The weather conditions were described as "fine" with moderate winds and sea swell.

"There was a really loud noise and then the boat immediately began to shift to one side," said one rescued adult passenger, Kim Song-Muk.

"People were scrambling to get to the upper decks, but it was difficult with the deck slanted over," Kim told the YTN news channel.

Photos broadcast on television showed the ship initially tilted by more than 45 degrees on the port side with helicopters flying overhead, and then fully capsized with only a small section of the stern showing above the water.

One local official who had taken a boat to the site and arrived an hour after the distress signal was sent, said he was "very concerned" about those still missing.

"The ship was already almost totally submerged when I got there. A lot of people must have been trapped," the official, who declined to be identified, told AFP by phone.

The water temperature was cold at around 12.6 degrees Celsius (55 Fahrenheit).

There were 29 crew members manning the vessel, which was also carrying 150 cars.

'We jumped into the water'

"I heard a big thumping sound and the boat suddenly started to tilt," one rescued student told YTN by telephone.

"Some of my friends fell over hard and started bleeding. We jumped into the water and got picked up by the rescue boats," he said.

Distraught parents of the students gathered at the high school in Ansan, desperate for news.

There were chaotic scenes in the school's auditorium, with parents yelling at school officials and frantically trying to make phone calls to their children.

"I talked to my daughter. She said she had been rescued along with 10 other students," one mother told the YTN news channel.

Scores of ferries ply the waters between the South Korean mainland and its multiple offshore islands every day, and accidents are relatively rare.

However in one of the worst incidents, nearly 300 people died when a ferry capsized off the western coast in October 1993.

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