292 missing, 4 dead in South Korea ferry disaster

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South Korean rescue helicopters fly over a South Korean passenger ship, trying to rescue passengers from the ship in water off the southern coast in South Korea, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. The South Korean passenger ship carrying more than 470 people, including many high school students, is sinking off the country’s southern coast Wednesday after sending a distress call, officials said. There are no immediate reports of causalities. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT

South Korean rescue helicopters fly over a South Korean passenger ship, trying to rescue passengers from the ship in water off the southern coast in South Korea, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. The South Korean passenger ship carrying more than 470 people, including many high school students, is sinking off the country’s southern coast Wednesday after sending a distress call, officials said. There are no immediate reports of causalities. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT

South Korean coast guard officers try to rescue passengers from ferry Sewol in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. Dozens of boats, helicopters and divers scrambled Wednesday to rescue more than 470 people, including 325 high school students on a school trip, after the ferry sank off South Korea’s southern coast. (AP Photo/Hyung Min-woo, Yonhap) KOREA OUT

A rescued passenger from a ferry sinking off South Korea’s southern coast, is carried by police and rescue teams on his arrival at Jindo port in Jindo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. Dozens of rescue boats and helicopters are scrambling to save more than 470 people, including many high school students, caught on a ferry sinking off South Korea’s southern coast, officials said. There are no immediate reports of causalities. (AP Photo/Park Chul-heung, Yonhap) KOREA OUT

A mother weeps as she and others search for their children’s names among a list of survivors rescued from a ferry that sank off the country’s southern coast, at Danwon high school in Ansan, South Korea, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. Dozens of boats, helicopters and divers scrambled to rescue more than 470 people, including 325 students on a school trip from the high school, after the ship sank earlier in the day. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Rescued passengers from a ferry sinking off South Korea’s southern coast, are escorted by rescue teams on their arrival at a port in Jindo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. More than 100 people were still unaccounted Wednesday several hours after the ferry carrying 476, most of them high school students, sank in cold waters off South Korea’s southern coast. (AP Photo/Yonhap, Park Chul-heung) KOREA OUT

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A ferry carrying 459 people, mostly high school students on an overnight trip to a tourist island, sank off South Korea’s southern coast on Wednesday, leaving nearly 300 people missing despite a frantic, hours-long rescue by dozens of ships and helicopters. At least four people were confirmed dead and 55 injured.

The high number of people unaccounted for — likely trapped in the ship or floating in the ocean — raised fears that the death toll could rise drastically, making it one of South Korea’s biggest ferry disasters since 1993, when 292 people died.

One student, Lim Hyung-min, told broadcaster YTN after being rescued 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.”

Local television stations broadcast live pictures of the ship, Sewol, listing to its side and slowly sinking as passengers jumped out or were winched up by helicopters. At least 87 vessels and 18 aircraft swarmed around the stricken ship. Rescuers clambered over its sides, pulling out passengers wearing orange life jackets. But the ship overturned completely and continued to sink slowly. Within a few hours only its blue-and-white bow stuck out of the water. Very soon, that too disappeared.

Some 160 coast guard and navy divers searched for survivors inside the ship’s wreckage a few kilometers (miles) from Byeongpung Island, which is not far from the mainland. The area is about 470 kilometers (290 miles) from Seoul.

Those rescued — wet, stunned and many without shoes — were brought to nearby Jindo Island, where medical teams wrapped them in pink blankets and checked them for injuries before settling them down on the floor of a cavernous gymnasium hall.

The ship had set sail from Incheon, a city in South Korea’s northwest and the site of the country’s main international airport, on Tuesday night for an overnight, 14-hour journey to the tourist island of Jeju.

Three hours from its destination, the ferry sent a distress call at about 9 a.m. Wednesday after it began listing to one side, according to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration. Officials didn’t know what caused it to sink and said the focus was still on rescuing survivors.

Lee Gyeong-og, a vice minister for South Korea’s Public Administration and Security Ministry, said 30 crew members, 325 high school students, 15 school teachers and 89 non-student passengers were aboard the ship.

Kang Byung-kyu, a government minister, said two of the dead were a female crew member and a male high school student. He said a third body was also believed to be that of a student. A coast guard officer confirmed a fourth fatality but had no immediate details about it.

Kang said 164 people were rescued, of whom 55 were injured. Officials said 292 people were missing.

Yonhap news agency said the 146-meter (480-foot) -long ship, which travels twice a week between Incheon and Jeju, was built in Japan in 1994 and could carry a maximum of 921 people, 180 vehicles and 152 shipping containers.

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