|Helicopters fly above a sinking South Korean passenger ship in water off the southern coast in South Korea, April 16, 2014. A passenger ship with 477 people aboard, mostly high school students, sank in waters off South Korea's south coast Wednesday morning, with two people dead and 14 others wounded, local media reported. (Xinhua/Newsis)
SEOUL, April 17 (Xinhua) -- Search for some 290 people, mostly teenage schoolchildren, who are still missing after a ferry capsized off South Korea's southwest coast, continued into the second the day on Thursday.
Divers tried five times overnight to make their way into the submerged hull to search for those missing, but rapid currents and low underwater visibility hampered their rescue operations, said Kang Byung-kyu, minister of security and public administration, who is coordinating the rescue efforts.
The ship sank at a depth of 30 meters, where the ocean currents flowed at a speed of 8 km per hour. Waves were half a meter high. Water temperature was 11.7 degrees Celsius, under which conditions a human body can endure only one or two hours.
The U.S. Seventh Fleet has sent its amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard, which has helicopters on board and was on a routine patrol off South Korea's west coast, to the scene at the request of the South Korean military.
GRIEVING FAMILY MEMBERS
Of the 475 people aboard ferry "Sewol," at least nine people have been confirmed dead as of 11 a.m. local time Thursday, including a crew member, five high school students, two teachers and a passenger, while 179 people were rescued.
The passengers aboard the sunken vessel included 325 students from Danwon High School in Ansan city and 15 teachers who had been on the way for a four-day field trip. The ship departed from South Korea's western port city of Incheon Tuesday night for the southern resort island of Jeju.
The Chinese embassy here confirmed Thursday that two Chinese citizens, one male and the other female, were aboard the ill-fated ship.
The death toll was expected to rise dramatically, with the missing believed to be trapped inside the sunken vessel.
Anxious and heart-broken family members of the victims are gathering at a gym on Jindo island, with a one-meter-high board carrying survivors list standing by the entrance. Relatives of those who remained missing started wailing and soothed each other in tearful hugs.
The mother of a high school student could not hold back her tears of relief when she found her son's name on the list.
Some have showed their last communication messages from people on the sunken ship.
"Mother, it may be my last chance to say I love you," read one message. "Please forgive me if I have ever done something wrong," another one said.
Many have grown furious, blaming the government for a lack of information and what they described as a slow reaction to probably South Korea's worst maritime accident in 20 years.
A TV footage showed the angry crowd yelled and poured water at Prime Minister Chung Hong-won when he visited the shelter. Some blamed the government for not sending enough divers.
Many people were so worried that they could not stay indoors and rushed to Jindo harbor, wrapped in blankets against the spring cold. Some even hired their own boat and decided to take a reporter or a diver to the rescue scene.
DEADLY MARITIME ACCIDENT
The 6,825-ton "Sewol" sank off the Jindo Island, near the southwest corner of the Korean Peninsula, at around 11:30 a.m. local time Wednesday. It had sent out a distress signal at about 8:52 a.m. and had remained afloat in the waters for some two and a half hours with its body being tilted.
"I heard a big thumping sound and the boat started to tilt," one survivor said.
"I ran out to have a look and saw the ferry listing by 90 degrees," said 57-year-old Mr. Yoo. He said the ferry had three decks, with a canteen, shops and entertainment facilities at lower deck.
"Since water poured in suddenly and submerged all the floors quickly, many people staying in lower cabins were trapped and had no time to escape," Yoo recalled.
Several survivors said they had been ordered to stay put. When the vessel tipped sharply, the passengers bumped into each other and some of them were injured by falling luggage and goods containers.
Kang, another survivor, said events happened within a very short period of time and he narrowly escaped but there was no time for him to help others.
Some passengers put on life jackets and jumped into the sea. They clambered into inflatable rafts and were rescued by Coast Guard vessels and fishing boats.
It was still unknown why the ferry sank in apparently calm waters. Divers sent down to the wreck are looking to check whether there is a submerged rock and if the ship has a hole in its hull.
There were reports saying the ship have veered off course. However, the Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd, the registered owner of Sewol, said it did not deviate significantly.
The ferry's original captain who had gone on vacation was replaced by a substitute surnamed Lee, who the company claimed is a veteran with eight years of experience on the Incheon-Jeju Island route.
The ship was not equipped with a voyage data recorder because it was a coastal ferry that sails relatively short distances, according to local media.
Sewol, 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.
No irregularities were found on the ship during a safety check in February.
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