South Korea’s government said 290 people are missing after a ferry carrying hundreds of high school students sank en route to the resort island of Jeju, in what may be the nation’s worst ferry accident in two decades.
At least six people, including a student, died in the accident, which occurred off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula yesterday, the nation’s disaster control agency said on its website today. Of the 475 passengers and crew, 179 people have been rescued, the agency said. The government yesterday said 368 people had been rescued, a mistake it said was caused by double-counting.
The passengers included 325 students and 14 teachers from Danwon High School on an excursion to Jeju island, according to the school’s website. A board posted at the school used to track those rescued showed that only 80 had been accounted for. They were in their penultimate year of high school at Danwon, which has 1,376 students.
“Luckily, I was able to jump, like many others,” Im Hyeong Min, a student from the school, told broadcaster YTN in a phone interview after being rescued. Another student, whose name was not provided, broke down in tears as he spoke to Yonhap TV about his friends, who had been inside their cabins before the ship sank.
Hundreds of parents whose children remain unaccounted for are packed into a gymnasium on Jindo island, near the site of the sinking, waiting for news after officials vowed to continue the search through the night. Some scuffled and threw water at South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong Won, who was surrounded by aides. Soldiers and doctors were standing by, while one woman was carried out on a stretcher after falling unconscious. Many sobbed and hugged.
“I felt something seriously went wrong when I noticed the ship was listing as sharply as 45 degrees at around 9 a.m.,” said Yang In Seok, a 48-year-old survivor who was transporting cargo to Jeju together with three fellow delivery men. “I bolted from the third floor of the stern, bumping against the wall, and then made it up to the deck to find a helicopter pulling us up.”
Helicopters shot flares, while rescue vessels flashed searchlights as divers looked for survivors from the sunken vessel during the night, coast guard official Koo Kwan Ho told the parents in the auditorium.
Kang Byung Kyu, minister of Security and Public Administration, will hold a news briefing at 9 a.m. today in Seoul to provide the latest information on the accident.
“I feel terrible that this unfortunate accident has happened to students on a field trip, and other passengers,” South Korea’s President Park Geun Hye said in a meeting with senior emergency officials, according to a statement on the website of her office. “If there is any hint of survivors, make every effort and never give up until the end.”
Coast guard footage yesterday showed the 6,325-ton ferry submerged with only its bow visible 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Byeongpoong island off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula. A 3,600-ton floating crane set out toward the area to try to raise the ferry, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co. said in an e-mailed statement, without saying how long it would take for the crane to arrive.
South Korea’s special Navy forces, including divers, were among the rescuers, which involved 28 aircraft, 168 vessels and 182 divers, according to the agency statement today.
A U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship, the USS Bonhomme Richard, is standing by to offer assistance in the area, U.S. Naval Forces Korea said in an e-mailed statement. The ship had been on a routine patrol.
The government said it’s still investigating what caused the accident, with local media including YTN saying it sailed into rocks in foggy conditions. The ship left from the port of Incheon late on April 15 on a trip that generally takes almost 14 hours. It was about 3 hours from Jeju where it sank.
The coast guard received the accident alert from the ferry at 8:58 a.m. local time yesterday, the ministry said. The ship first listed, with rescuers lowered from helicopters rushing to pull survivors from one side of the ship. As the vessel began to sink, passengers were told to jump into the water, survivors said, and within three hours the ferry had sunk with just a bit of the bow remaining above water.
Confusion surrounded official statements about the incident. The government at one point said 368 were rescued, while the ship’s owner and operator Chonghaejin Marine Co. said 90 passengers were unaccounted for. Many of the mistakes were caused by double-counting, vice security minister Lee Gyeong Og said at a televised press briefing. The total number of people on the ferry was also revised repeatedly.
The six confirmed casualties included high school student Jeong Cha Woong, according to the security ministry. Another was Park Ji Young, a female employee of the boat operator, South Korea’s disaster control agency said. The other four victims haven’t been identified, Yonhap reported.
The vessel, named “Sewol,” or “time and tide” in Korean, can carry as many as 921 passengers and 130 vehicles traveling between Incheon and Jeju Island. Chonghaejin Marine operates two vessels on the Incheon-Jeju route as well as two other services in the southern coastal area, according to the company’s website.
It’s the second accident in less than a month involving a Chonghaejin ferry, after its “Democracy No. 5” collided with a fishing boat near Incheon late last month, with no casualties, according to a company official who asked not to be named, citing company policy.
Any survivors face water temperatures in the area of 13.2 degrees Celsius (56 degrees Fahrenheit), according to South Korea’s National Fisheries Research & Development Institute. That would probably lead to exhaustion or unconsciousness in about 1 to 2 hours, and has an expected survival time of up to 6 hours, according to the U.S. Search and Rescue Task Force.
The Sewol left Incheon two hours late due to fog, Yonhap News reported.
Yesterday’s accident may be the worst since the ‘Seohae’ ferry sank in 1993, killing 292, according to the Korea Maritime University. The ‘Namyoung’ ferry sank in 1970, killing 323 people, according to the General Insurance Association of Korea.
South Korea has been investing in new cruise terminals in Incheon and other coastal cities to attract more tourists from China and Japan. That has prompted companies such as Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., the world’s second-largest cruise line, to expand into Asia as economic growth is making it more affordable for people to travel by ships.
Routes to Jeju, an island also known as ‘South Korea’s Hawaii,’ are especially popular. A total of 2.3 million foreign tourists visited Jeju last year, with Chinese visitors accounting for 78 percent, according to data on the Jeju government’s website. Domestic visitors to Jeju totaled 8.5 million last year, up 6.3 percent from 2012.
Its popularity is also attracting foreign investment. Genting Singapore Plc, Southeast Asia’s largest casino operator by market value, said in February it will develop a $2.2 billion casino resort on the island with Chinese property company Landing International Development Ltd.
Foreigners purchased a combined 11 square kilometers (4.2 square miles) of land in Jeju island worth 467 billion won ($450 million) last year, according to data from Jeju Special Self-Governing Province data. The value of purchases jumped more than 47 percent from a year earlier, the data show.