SEOUL — Emergency teams desperately searched an overturned and submerged ferry Thursday morning amid fears that scores of the nearly 300 missing passengers are still trapped in the vessel’s hard-to-reach corridors.
In what could become South Korea’s deadliest maritime disaster in two decades, those on board — some eventually rescued, some not — sent frantic text messages to their loved ones, providing a glimpse of the terror as the ferry capsized Wednesday.
“Dad, I can’t walk out,” one 18-year-old wrote, according to MBC, a South Korean news outlet. “The corridor is full of kids, and it’s too tilted.”
About 24 hours after the passenger ferry with more than 450 aboard began to slowly sink off South Korea’s southwestern coast, at least nine are dead and 287 others, many of them teenagers, are unaccounted for. South Korean news media put the number rescued at between 164 and 179, most of whom were brought ashore to the island of Jindo, where they were wrapped in warm towels or treated for minor injuries.
The cause of the disaster was not immediately clear, but survivors indicate that they were jolted by an impact and heard a loud noise before the ferry listed. That scenario would be consistent with some kind of collision, perhaps with a rock or other large object, some analysts speculated. The boat issued a distress call for emergency help as it began to take on water and roll to its side.
Soon, its deck was at nearly a 90-degree angle to the water. Within several hours, the ferry was belly-up, and slowly slipping deeper and deeper into the chilly waters of the Yellow Sea.
Some passengers said the scene was chaotic, as people struggled to find their balance or were trapped in lower decks. A few passengers reported hearing an announcement telling all on board to remain in place.
“So the people did nothing but sit in a sinking ship,” Huh Woong, a bus driver, told JTBC, a South Korean cable network.
The 6,825-ton ferry, the Sewol, was traveling from the port city of Incheon to Jeju Island, a popular southern getaway, when it ran into trouble about three hours from its destination. More than two-thirds of those aboard were students from Danwon High School in Ansan, just south of Seoul. They had planned a four-day field trip on the island, famous for its hikes and museums, South Korean media said.
As the rescue operation began, some parents gathered at the high school in Ansan, waiting for news. Later, they were shuttled several hours south to Jindo, and media on site described a testy gathering, with some parents irate about the pace of the rescue, particularly after the ferry became almost fully submerged.
A team of South Korean navy divers on Wednesday pried their way into several compartments of the submerged vessel but found no bodies, the Yonhap news agency said, citing navy officials. The diving operation, after a suspension overnight, continued Thursday morning — but work has been slowed by strong currents and poor visibility.
Authorities in Seoul had earlier announced that 368 people were rescued but then rescinded the figure, saying it had made an error in tallying the numbers. The official number of people on board also changed several times, ranging between 459 and 477.
Early in the rescue, aerial footage showed an operation involving South Korea’s military and coast guard, as well as private ships that hurried to the site. As the ferry tipped to its side, passengers could be seen sliding into the water and scrambling aboard rescue vessels. Later, commandos in black uniforms shimmied across the ship as it lay on its side, pulling passengers out of windows and placing them into baskets to be airlifted by helicopters.
“Please make the best efforts to rescue even one more person,” South Korean President Park Geun-hye said during a visit to meet with disaster management officials, according to Yonhap. Park added that she feels “truly devastated.”
South Korea plans to use two cranes to pull the ferry from the water Thursday. Lee Kyeong-ok, a vice minister in charge of the emergency response, said 160 divers were dispatched to the scene, along with 72 vessels and 18 aircraft. According to images of the rescue, most of those who jumped or were pulled from the ferry were wearing life jackets.
“The ferry was shaken very hard,” one of the rescued students, Lim Hyeong-min, told YTN. “The ferry started tipping, and I jumped into the sea. The height from the ferry to the water was lower than a one-story building. Rescue boats were right near, so I swam to one boat. The water was so cold.”
Kim Soeong-mook, one of the survivors, told YTN that he fears some passengers were trapped inside, unable to reach the exits as the boat severely tilted.
“I thought it was going to recover balance, but it tilted even more,” Kim said. “I stayed near the entrance of the ferry where people could escape, but when the ferry tilted more, it was almost difficult for people to move.”
The ferry is owned by the Chonghaejin Marine Co., and it regularly makes the 13½-hour trip from Incheon to Jeju. The Sewol is equipped for long-haul journeys, and a video on the company’s Web site shows the ferry’s sleeping quarters, as well as a restaurant, convenience store and library.
At a news briefing, a Chonghaejin official said the Sewol’s regular captain was on leave. The substitute piloting the ferry had 30 years of experience.
The boat’s departure had been delayed several hours because of fog, but by the time it reached South Korea’s southwestern coast, the weather was calm and relatively clear.
The boat issued a distress signal at 8:58 a.m. Wednesday. Within 30 minutes, local media reports said, the first coast guard rescue vessels had arrived. The U.S. Embassy in Seoul said the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship on routine patrol of waters west of the Korean Peninsula, had been diverted to the scene.
According to Yonhap, the Sewol has a maximum capacity to carry 921 people, as well as 180 vehicles and 152 shipping containers. After the boat capsized, debris including shipping containers could be spotted in the water.
Harlan reported from Tokyo.