South Korea’s government said at least 100 people remain unaccounted for and the total may be far greater, almost seven hours after rescuers began aiding survivors of a ferry that sank en route to a holiday resort.
Between 160 and 368 passengers have been rescued from the ferry, which was heading to Jeju island with 476 people on board, Lee Gyeong Og, vice minister at the Ministry of Security and Public Administration, said at a televised press briefing. The government earlier said 368 people have been rescued. At least two people, including a high school student, died in the accident, while 14 people were hospitalized.
“There’s confusion over the number of people rescued,” the security ministry said on its official Twitter feed. “We have difficulty in exact counting as many agencies and private fishing boats are joining the rescue operation.”
Coast guard footage showed the 6,825-ton ferry submerged with only its bow visible 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Byeongpoong island off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula. The government said it’s still investigating what caused the vessel to sink, with local media including YTN TV saying it sailed into rocks in foggy conditions.
The passengers included 324 students and 14 teachers from Danwon High School on an excursion to Jeju island, Kim Tae Eun, an official at the school southwest of Seoul, said by phone.
“Luckily I was able to jump, like many others,” Im Hyeong Min, a student from the school, told 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.
The vessel, named “Sewol,” or “time and tide” in Korean, is owned and operated by privately-held Chonghaejin Marine Co., a company official said by phone, asking not to be named citing internal policy. 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.
One of the two casualties in today’s accident was Park Ji Young, a female employee of the boat operator, South Korea’s disaster control agency said in an e-mailed statement. High school student Jeong Cha Woong was the other, according to the security ministry.
The coast guard received the accident alert from the ferry at 8:58 a.m. local time, the ministry said. The rescue effort includes South Korea’s special Navy forces, 31 helicopters and 60 vessels, the ministry said in an e-mailed statement.
The ferry 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.
The ‘Sewol’ left Incheon two hours late yesterday due to fog, Yonhap News reported.
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. (RCL), 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.
‘South Korea’s Hawaii’
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, 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 purchase jumped more than 47 percent from a year earlier, the data show.