Updated: 04/16/2014 19:23 | By Agence France-Presse

Three dead, 292 missing in S. Korea ferry sinking

South Korean rescue teams, including elite navy SEAL divers, raced Wednesday to find nearly 300 people missing after a ferry sank with 459 on board, mostly high school students bound for a holiday island.


Three dead, 292 missing in S. Korea ferry sinking

The South Korean Coast Guard rescue some of the passengers and crew aboard a ferry sinking some 20 kilometres off the island of Byungpoong in Jindo on April 16, 2014, in this South Korea Coast Guard image - by South Korea Coast Guard

Lee Gyeong-Og, the vice minister of security and public administration, said 164 people had been rescued, leaving 292 "unaccounted for". His office said there were three confirmed deaths, including a female crew member and a student.

There are fears that the final death toll will be high, after the 6,825-tonne ship listed sharply, 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 to still be alive," said one senior rescue team official, speaking by phone from the scene.

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 20 kilometres (13 miles) off the southern island of Byungpoong. 

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.

Several rescued passengers said they had initially been ordered to stay in their seats, before the ferry suddenly listed 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).

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

- 'A big thumping sound' -

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.

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