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.
Coast guard officers, speaking on condition of anonymity citing department rules, said at least two people died and 293 were unaccounted for, but gave no further details, including what might have caused the ferry to sink. Official estimates of the missing, dead and even the number of passengers on the ship varied wildly as the search went on. A government official had earlier said that more than 100 people were unaccounted for, but officials later boosted the number to 295 missing and then changed it to 293.
Media photos showed wet students, some without shoes, some wrapped in blankets, tended to by emergency workers. One student, Lim Hyung-min, told broadcaster YTN from a gym on a nearby island that he and other students jumped into the ocean 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."
The water temperature in the area was about 12 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit), 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. Officials said mud on the ocean floor made underwater search operations difficult. The ship sank in waters several kilometers (miles) north of Byeongpung Island, which is near the mainland and about 470 kilometers (290 miles) from Seoul, according to the coast guard.
Local media earlier showed the mostly submerged ferry tilting dramatically as helicopters flew overhead and rescue vessels 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 ferry as water quickly rushed in and the severe tilt of the vessel kept them from reaching the exits. Some people urged those who couldn't get out of the ferry 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. The trip from Incheon to Jeju is usually about 14 hours, so the ferry was about three hours from its destination when it made the distress call.
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 taxis 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.
Officials said dozens of navy and coast guard divers, more than eight government boats, 11 helicopters and eight private fishing boats were helping with rescue efforts.
Lee Gyeong-og, a vice minister for South Korea's Public Administration and Security Ministry, had earlier said 14 were injured, but officials later changed the number to seven without elaborating.
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