SEOUL, South Korea – More than 100 people were still unaccounted Wednesday several hours after a ferry carrying 476, most of them high school students, sank in cold waters off South Korea's southern coast, killing at least two and injuring 14, officials said.
There were fears of a big jump in the number of deaths, as dozens of boats, helicopters and divers scrambled to rescue passengers who had been on the ferry travelling to the southern island of Jeju. One rescued passenger said he believed that many people had been trapped inside the ferry when it sank.
The ferry sent a distress call at about 9 a.m. local time Wednesday after it began leaning to one side, according to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration. The government said about 95 percent of the ferry, whose passengers included 325 high school students on a school trip to the popular tourist island, was submerged.
Two coast guard officers said that a 27-year-old woman named Park Ji-yeong and another unidentified person had died. Both spoke on condition of anonymity citing department rules. The government said five hours after the distress call that 368 of the 476 passengers had been rescued, but officials gave no further details, including what caused the ferry to sink or the conditions of the other passengers.
Photos showed wet students wrapped in blankets as emergency workers tended to them.
One student, Lim Hyung-min, told broadcaster YTN from a gym on a nearby island that he jumped into the ocean wearing a life jacket with other students 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."
The water temperature in the area was about 12 degrees Celsius, cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 90 minutes or 2 hours, according to an emergency official who spoke on condition of anonymity citing department rules.
Local media ran photos showing the partially submerged ferry tilting dramatically as helicopters flew overhead and rescue vessels and a small boat covered with an orange tarp over it floated nearby.
Passenger Kim Seong-mok, speaking from a nearby island after his rescue, told YTN that he was "certain" that many people were trapped inside the ship as water quickly filled up inside and the severe tilt of the ferry kept them from reaching the exits. Some people yelled at those who couldn't get out, urging them to break windows.
Kim said that after having breakfast he felt the ferry tilt and then heard it crash into something. He said the ferry operator made an announcement asking that passengers wait and not move from their places. Kim said he didn't hear any announcement telling passengers to escape.
The students are from a high school in Ansan city near Seoul and were on their way to Jeju island for a four-day trip, according to a relief team set up by Gyeonggi Province, which governs the city. The ferry left Incheon port, just west of Seoul, on Tuesday evening, according to the state-run Busan Regional Maritime Affairs & Port Administration.
At the high school, students were sent home and parents gathered for news about the ferry.
Park Ji-hee, a first-year student, said she saw about a dozen parents crying at the school entrance and many cars and taxies gathered at the gate as she left in the morning.
She said some students in her classroom began to cry as they saw the news on their handsets. Teachers tried to soothe them, saying that the students on the ferry would be fine.
A total of 16 helicopters, 34 rescue vessels and navy divers were sent to the area, Lee Gyeong-og, a vice minister for South Korea's Public Administration and Security Ministry, told a televised news conference. He said 14 had been injured so far, including one described as serious, and taken to hospitals.
Later Wednesday, 21 navy and 11 coast guard divers began searching the near-sunken ship for survivors, according to emergency officials.