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7 dead, 289 still missing in S Korea ferry sinking

2014-04-17 11:12 Xinhua Web Editor: Mo Hong'e
Helicopters fly above a sinking South Korean passenger ship in water off the southern coast in South Korea, April 16, 2014.(Xinhua/Newsis)

Helicopters fly above a sinking South Korean passenger ship in water off the southern coast in South Korea, April 16, 2014.(Xinhua/Newsis)

A passenger ship carrying 475 people, mostly high school students, capsized in waters off South Korea's southwest coast Wednesday, leaving at least seven people dead and 289 others missing, local media reported Thursday.

Kang Byung-kyu, minister of security and public administration, had said at a televised press conference that a total of six people, including a crew member, four high school students and a teacher, were confirmed dead as of 9:00am local time Thursday, with 179 people rescued and 290 others still missing.

Several minutes later, local media reported that one more high school student was found dead, sending the total death toll to seven and reducing the number of those missing to 289.

[Read more: Embassy says 2 Chinese nationals aboard capsized South Korean ship]

The passengers aboard the sunken vessel included 325 high school students and 15 teachers who had been on the way for a four- day school trip. The ship departed from South Korea's western port city of Incheon Tuesday night for the southern resort island of Jeju.

Among the rescued, 78 were students from the Danwon High School in Ansan, a Seoul suburb. Almost 70 percent of those aboard were from the high school.

Divers tried five times overnight to make their way into the submerged hull to search for those missing, but rapid currents and low underwater visibility hampered their operations, Kang said.

A total of 555 coast guard and navy divers were working at the scene, and 29 airplanes and helicopters as well as 169 rescue ships have been dispatched to join the search and rescue operations.

Kang said 101 people were sent to nearby hospitals for treatment, with five of them severely injured.

The death toll was expected to rise further as hundreds of passengers were still missing almost a day after the 6,825-ton passenger ship, "Sewol," capsized and sank off Jindo Island, near the southwestern tip of the Korean Peninsula, at around 11:30am local time Wednesday.

Earlier, a Chinese women surnamed Han told Xinhua that her sister, 38, and sister-in-law, 39, were among those missing on the sunken ferry.

Showing a picture of her sister and sister-in-law with the sea scene as background, the woman said it was taken on the ferry when they were on their way to Jeju island for a vacation, adding the missing couple are migrant workers working in South Korea for years.

"I was very sad, because my sister and sister-in-law are not on the list of survivors," said Han. She has stayed in Jindo overnight, where other family members of the ferry passengers are waiting for news and meeting with rescued passengers.

The Chinese Embassy in South Korea has asked relevant South Korean government agencies to help confirm if they were on board the ill-fated ferry.

The Coast Guard received the first distress call from an estimated student passenger of the ship at about 8:52am Wednesday, and the ship had remained afloat in the waters for about two and a half hours with its body tilting.

The Coast Guard said that most of those missing were believed to be trapped inside the sunken vessel, adding they have resumed search operations into the hull together with navy divers from 7 a. m. Thursday.

The US Seventh Fleet has sent its amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard, which has helicopters on board and was on a routine patrol off South Korea's west coast, to the scene at the request of the South Korean military.

The rescue operations would have troubles Thursday, as it will rain and strong winds will blow near the area of the scene, according to the weather forecast.

Salvage operations will start as early as Friday morning as it will take time for three cranes to arrive at the scene. One crane ship will get there Friday morning to salve the submerged hull out of the waters, with the others set to arrive Friday night.

The vessel was believed to have run aground in the waters as some rescued passengers said the ship began leaning to the port side after making a thumping sound on the bow. The ferry veered off the route as it departed some two and a half hours later than schedule due to a heavy fog off the country's west coast.

Other rescued passengers said an announcement was made through the loudspeakers in the vessel warning them not to move as it would be dangerous. It was said to have raised the death toll as many passengers failed to escape from the vessel timely.

The ferry's original captain, who had gone on vacation, was replaced by a substitute surnamed Lee, who the ship's operator Chonghaejin Marine claimed is a veteran with eight years of experience on the Incheon-Jeju Island route.

This is the second accident involving a Chonghaejin Marine vessel in three weeks. Another Chonghaejin ferry hit a 7.93-ton fishing boat on March 28 en route from Incheon to Baengnyeong Island in the West Sea. The 396-ton ship was carrying about 140 passengers and no injuries were reported in the accident.

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