At least four people are dead and nearly 300 missing after a ferry boat sank off South Korea's southern coast Wednesday. Authorities initially reported most of the passengers were rescued but quickly backtracked and raised casualty figures dramatically as the scale of the tragedy became clear.
The passenger ferry was carrying more than 462 people on board, most of them high school students, when it sent out a distress signal at 9:00 a.m. South Korean officials said.
Reports quoted passengers as saying they heard a loud noise before the 6,000-ton vessel began to tilt and then capsize and sink. It was almost completely submerged in just hours.
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Scores of Coast Guard, military, and private vessels responded to the disaster to rescue survivors. They were joined by helicopters and Navy divers to search the area and sunken wreckage.
Most of those on board were high school students headed from Incheon to the southern resort island Jeju on a four-day school trip.
South Korean authorities initially reported 368 passengers were rescued, including all of the students. But, just minutes later, authorities dropped the estimate dramatically.
Kang Byung-kyu is Minister of Security and Public Administration. He said as part of search and rescue efforts they will send three cranes to lift the sunken ship in the next two days.
He said of the number of people who have been found so far, 78 on the list of rescued are students.
The students all were from Ansan a town just south of Seoul.
Compounding the tragedy, the municipal office of education sent out a text message to parents saying all their children were safe.
School authorities said they quickly organized buses for parents to be taken to the scene.
The ship, the Sewol, sank at a depth of 30 meters, leading to speculation it may have come aground or hit a rock.
South Korean media reports said the ferry's regular captain was on vacation and another captain was at the helm.
Lee Jong-in is a representative of Salvage Company Alpha and an expert on maritime safety and rescue.
He said the ferry company will investigate the sinking, but the captain could have been careless. He said ultimately the captain of the ship is the one responsible for it.
Lee said such incidents are rare in South Korea. The last major sinking was the Navy vessel Cheonan in 2010, which Seoul said was hit by a North Korean torpedo, killing 46 sailors. Pyongyang denies it was responsible.
South Korea's President Park Geun-hye on Wednesday visited the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures headquarters. She urged them to do their best to rescue the missing.
VOA Seoul Bureau Producer Youmi KIim Contributed to this report.
Survivors were taken to the nearby island of Jindo. Kim Tae-young, a student, said he acted quickly when the ship started to lean.
"I held a handrail and moved toward the right side of the ferry to ride a helicopter as water kept coming in," he said.
Many of the passengers said they were initially told to stay in their seats and not try to escape. Yoo Ho-shil said when he felt the ferry began to list, he knew he had to act.
''No, I could see it. I felt in my bones that I had to escape when I saw water was flooding an aisle next to a cabin," he recalled.
Most of the passengers were high school students headed to Jeju island on a school outing.
The students attend a school in Ansan, near Seoul. Classes were dismissed Wednesday as anxious parents gathered, waiting for news about their children.
"I can't even describe how I feel now. I was super nervous," said Park Sung-ho, the father of one of the students. "Even specially trained soldiers will have a hard time if they get stranded at sea. Then what a shock it must be to those kids? I'm sure it must have felt devastating. It's even worse for the parents."
South Korean television broadcast images of the ship, as it slowly turned perpendicular to the sea before disappearing beneath the surface.
The 146-meter-long ferry departed late Tuesday from the western port of Incheon. It sank about 20 kilometers off the island of Byungpoong.
The reason for the incident is not clear. Some passengers reported hearing a loud noise before the ferry started sinking.
Heavy fog was reported in the area on Tuesday evening, but it is not known whether this contributed to the sinking.
Some information in this report contributed by Reuters.