Nearly 290 Missing in Ferry Disaster Off Southwest Coast

Nine people died and 287 are missing after a ferry sank off the southwest coast on Wednesday morning. The ferry carrying 475 people was on its way from Incheon to the resort island of Jeju. The passengers included 325 students of Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province who were on a school trip, of whom about 200 are missing.

Some 175 were rescued before the ferry went under completely, but the others apparently became trapped inside the ferry.

The disaster looks like the worst since a ferry with 362 passengers sank in 1993, killing 292.

The ferry Sewol is almost submerged in the waters off Jindo, South Jeolla Province on Wednesday. /Newsis The ferry Sewol is almost submerged in the waters off Jindo, South Jeolla Province on Wednesday. /Newsis

The 6,825-ton Sewol sent out a distress signal shortly before 9 a.m. in waters 1.8 miles north of Byeongpung Island, South Jeolla Province. It had left Incheon around 9 p.m. the previous night and headed for Jeju.

Navy and Coast Guard helicopters and ships and scores of civilian fishing boats rushed to the scene. But they had rescued only five passengers by 9:40 a.m.

When the rescue teams arrived, the Sewol had already tilted nearly 45 degrees to port. Around 10:30 a.m., the ferry turned nearly 90 degrees and some two hours and 20 minutes later it sank 37 m below the surface.

Rescued passengers testified that they heard a "loud boom" before the ferry began to sink. "We're investigating whether the Sewol struck rocks while going off the course recommended by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries to reach Jeju faster because it was about three hours behind schedule due to fog the previous night," the Ministry of Security and Public Administration said.

Students who survived a ferry wreck weep after being rescued on Wednesday. /Newsis Students who survived a ferry wreck weep after being rescued on Wednesday. /Newsis

The families are furious with the government and the ferry's captain. The government announced contradictory reports all day, saying at one time that most passengers had been rescued but then being forced to retract that figure. The captain escaped during the early stage of rescue operations.

Even 10 hours after the disaster, the government was still in the dark about the exact number of passengers. At 2 p.m., a ministry taskforce claimed 368 of 466 passengers had been rescued but the Coast Guard at the same time about 290 passengers remained unaccounted for.

The ministry claimed the mistake was due to conflicting reports "from various sources all at once."

Twelve hours after the disaster, the ministry said 477 people had been on board, but at 4:30 p.m., it corrected the number of passengers to 459. It was not until 5:40 p.m. that ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine corrected the figure to 462. It revised the figure again at 9:00 p.m. to 475 after recounting them on CCTV footage of boarding. 

englishnews@chosun.com / Apr. 17, 2014 09:16 KST

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