Ferry sinks leaving 4 dead and 295 missing in South Korea

South Korean ferry "Sewol" is seen sinking at the sea off Jindo

Almost 300 people are missing after a ferry sank off the coast of South Korea.

Four people have been confirmed dead so far – including a male student, a female crew member and another unidentified man.

The South Korean government says about 180 people have been rescued so far but 295 remain unaccounted for.

A girl rescued by South Korean maritime policemen from a sinking ship "Sewol" in the sea off Jindo, is treated at a port in Jindo

The ferry, with 476 people and 150 vehicles on board, was sailing to the southern island of Jeju when it sent a distress call at 9am local time (1am UK time) on Wednesday morning as it began listing to one side.

Within two hours it had completely capsized, with only the front part of its hull visible above the water.

There is no indication yet what caused the ship to list and roll onto its side, although one witness told television channel YTN there had been a “loud impact and noise” before it began sinking.

Part of South Korean passenger ship "Sewol" that has been sinking is seen as South Korean maritime policemen search for passengers in the sea off Jindo

Captain John Noble, a marine salvage expert, told Sky News the most likely explanation was the ferry hit a rock.

He added that passengers would have struggled to get off the ferry quite soon after it began listing.

“Once a ship gets beyond 20 degrees it is impossible for passengers to stand up without holding onto something,” he said.

South Korea ferry accident.

“Once a ship gets to its side you completely lose your orientation. Those poor people would really have relied on rescuers to get them out.

“It’s truly remarkable so many rescue crews got there so quickly.”

The 6,825-ton ship left Incheon port, west of Seoul, on Tuesday evening and ran into difficulties about 60 miles (100km) south of the Korean peninsula.

South Korea.

The 325 students and 15 teachers on board were from a high school in Ansan, near Seoul. They were reportedly on their way to the Jeju island for a four-day trip.

One student, Lim Hyung-min, told YTN he jumped into the ocean wearing a life jacket with other students and then swam to a rescue boat.

“As the ferry was shaking and tilting, we all tripped and bumped into each another,” he said, adding some people were bleeding.

South Korea ferry sinking.

He said the ocean was “so cold”, adding: “I was hurrying, thinking that I wanted to live.”

The news agency AP is reporting 55 injuries, including people with burns, hypothermia and fractured bones. 

A total of 18 helicopters, 87 rescue boats and 160 divers are at the scene, according to AP.

Passengers rescued from a ferry that sank off the Korean peninsula.

The US Navy has dispatched its amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard to aid the operation.

Fishing and other commercial vessels appeared to rescue many passengers before emergency teams arrived at the scene.

Passenger Kim Seong-mok told YTN he was “certain” people were trapped inside as water quickly rushed into the vessel, and the severe tilt of the ferry stopped them getting out.

A passenger is rescued by South Korean maritime policemen from a sinking ship in the sea off Jindo

Some people yelled at those who could not get out, urging them to break windows, he said.

Mr Kim said he felt the ship tilt and heard it crash into something before the ferry operator made an announcement asking passengers to wait and not move.

Darkness has now fallen in South Korea and the rescue operation is also being hampered by muddy waters.

A South Korean passenger ship "Sewol" is seen in this undated photo

“There is so much mud in the sea water and the visibility is very low,” Lee Gyeong-Og, the vice minister of security and public administration, told a press briefing in Seoul.

Those rescued are being taken to the nearby Jindo Island, where medical teams are wrapping them in blankets, checking for injuries and directing them towards a school gymnasium.

Meanwhile, parents of the children on board have gathered at their high school in Ansan to wait for news.

South Korea ferry sinking.

One of the dead was found inside the sinking ferry, while the other died soon after arriving at the Mokpo Hankook hospital on the mainland.

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