South Korean rescuers, including elite navy SEAL divers, worked frantically under floodlights Wednesday to find nearly 300 people missing after a ferry sank with 459 on board, mostly high school students bound for a holiday island.
Lee Gyeong-Og, the vice minister of security and public administration, said 164 people had been rescued, leaving 291 "unaccounted for". There were four confirmed deaths, including a female crew member and a student.
There are fears the confirmed death toll could rise sharply. The 6,825-tonne Sewol listed violently, capsized and finally sank – all within two hours of sending a distress signal at 9:00am (0000 GMT).
"I'm afraid there's little chance for those trapped inside still to be alive," one senior rescue team official, Cho Yang-Bok, told YTN television as teams of divers struggled to access the submerged, multi-storey ferry.
Dramatic television footage showed terrified passengers wearing life jackets clambering into inflatable boats as water lapped over the rails of the vessel as it sank 20 kilometres (13 miles) off the southern island of Byungpoong. Some could be seen sliding down the steeply inclined side of the ferry and into the water, as rescuers, including the crew of what appeared to be a small fishing boat, pulled them to safety.
As night fell the coastguard said the rescue operation was continuing using floodlights and underwater flares.
Several rescued passengers said they had initially been ordered to stay in their seats, but then the ferry suddenly listed to one side, triggering panic.
Told 'not to move'
"The crew kept telling us not to move," one male survivor told the YTN news channel.
"Then it suddenly shifted over and people slid to one side and it became very difficult to get out," he added.
Lee's ministry earlier announced that 368 people had been rescued – a mistake it attributed to conflicting information from multiple sources.
Of the 429 passengers on board the ferry bound for the popular southern resort island of Jeju, more than 300 were students travelling with 14 teachers from a high school in Ansan just south of Seoul.
Among those confirmed as rescued, 78 were students.
"I feel so pained to see students on a school trip... face such a tragic accident. I want you to pour all your energy into this mission," President Park Geun-Hye said on a visit to the main disaster agency situation room in Seoul.
Many of the survivors were plucked from the water by fishing and other commercial vessels who were first on the scene before a flotilla of coastguard and navy ships arrived, backed by more than a dozen helicopters.
Lee said 178 divers, including a team of South Korean navy SEALS, were working at the site, but low visibility and strong currents were hampering their efforts. The US 7th Fleet sent an amphibious assault ship on patrol in the area to help.
The cause of the accident was not immediately clear, although rescued passengers reported the ferry coming to a sudden, shuddering halt – indicating it may have run aground. The weather was described as fine with moderate winds and sea swell.
One local official, who had taken a boat to the site and arrived an hour after the distress signal was sent, said he was "very concerned" about those still missing.
"The ship was already almost totally submerged when I got there. A lot of people must have been trapped," the official, who declined to be identified, told AFP by phone.
'A big thumping sound'
"I heard a big thumping sound and the boat suddenly started to tilt," one rescued student said.
Another spoke of luggage and vending machines crashing down on passengers as the vessel tipped over. "Everyone was screaming and a lot of people were bleeding badly," he said.
Distraught parents gathered at the high school in Ansan, desperate for news, with some yelling at school officials while others repeatedly tried to call their children's mobiles. "I'm so much worried about my son," said one father, Lee Ki-Hong. "I texted him an hour before the ship sank, but there has been no reply," he told YTN.
Survivors were taken to a gymnasium on nearby Jindo island, where relatives of the missing, wrapped in blankets against the cold, were holding what looked set to be a night-long vigil at the main harbour.
Three giant floating cranes had been despatched to the site and would begin operations to raise the submerged vessel tomorrow, officials said.
Scores of ferries ply the waters between the South Korean mainland and its multiple offshore islands every day, and accidents are relatively rare. In one of the worst incidents, nearly 300 people died when a ferry capsized off the west coast in October 1993.