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(8th LD) Two people dead, 293 missing in sunken ferry

2014/04/16 17:04

SEOUL/JINDO, South Korea, April 16 (Yonhap) -- A passenger ship carrying 459 people, mostly high school students, sank off South Korea's southern coast on Wednesday, leaving at least two people, including one student, dead and 294 others missing.

More than seven hours after the accident, fears have grown that many of those unaccounted for could be trapped inside the sunken ship and died, though massive rescue and search efforts are still under way.

According to the latest government figures, the 6,325-ton Sewol was carrying 459 people, including 325 students from a high school in Ansan, just south of Seoul, when it sent out a distress signal at 8:58 a.m. in waters 20 kilometers off the island of Byeongpoong.

Of them, 164 have been rescued, two died and 293 remain unaccounted for, officials said.

The government had earlier announced that 368 people were rescued, but officials later acknowledged there was an error in tallying up figures.

The two dead were a 27-year-old female crew member and a high school student. The sailor was found dead in the ship while the student died after being rescued. Dozens of others were taken to hospitals with injuries, including broken bones and burns, officials said.

The accident prompted a massive rescue operation involving about 40 Coast Guard and military vessels and a dozen military aircraft and helicopters. About 200 Navy special forces and divers were also mobilized to search the sunken ship, the defense ministry said

Military divers will enter the sunken ferry starting at 5 p.m. in efforts to find the missing passengers, a ministry official said. The ship sank at a depth of 30 meters, with the ocean currents flowing at a speed of 8 km per hour.

Additional forces and ships are on the way to the area, the Navy said.

A U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship equipped with two helicopters, which was on its routine patrol mission in the western sea, was also moving to the scene to help with the rescue operation, U.S. Forces Korea said.

Television footage showed the ship sinking on its side and rescue workers in black uniforms trying to help passengers leave the vessel as helicopters were flying overhead. Rescued passengers were wrapped in beige blankets one by one after arriving at a nearby port.

The ill-fated ship completely capsized and sank in two hours.

The cause of the accident was not known, though survivors said they heard a banging noise before the ship suddenly started sinking. Speculation has arisen that the ship might have hit an underwater rock or collided with another vessel.

"There was a bang and then the ship suddenly tilted over," said a survivor identified by his surname Yoo, 57. "Downstairs were restaurants, shops and entertainment rooms, and those who were there are feared to have failed to escape."

   The government said the priority is rescue operations.

"We will try to determine the cause of the accident after rescue operations are over," said Second Vice Home Affairs Minister Lee Gyeong-og said during a press briefing in Seoul.

Lee said the government will mobilize all available resources to search for the missing.

The ferry set off from the western port of Incheon on Tuesday evening later than scheduled due to dense fog, and was to arrive at the southern resort island of Jeju later on Wednesday. The students were on their way to Jeju for a four-day school trip.

The ship, which plies between Incheon and Jeju twice a week, was built in Japan in 1994, is 146 meter long and 22 meter wide, and has the maximum capacity of carrying 921 people, 180 vehicles and 152 shipping containers at the same time.

President Park Geun-hye was immediately briefed on the accident, and she ordered maximum efforts to rescue all of the passengers, stressing that all available Navy, Coast Guard and other vessels nearby should be mobilized, her spokesman said.

khj@yna.co.kr

(END)

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