By Youkyung Lee and Foster Klug
The Associated Press
MOKPO, South Korea — Strong currents, rain and bad visibility hampered an increasingly anxious search today for 287 passengers still missing a day after their ferry flipped onto its side and sank in cold waters off the southern coast of South Korea.
Nine people, including five students and two teachers, were confirmed dead, but many expect a sharp jump in that number because of the long period of time the missing have now spent either trapped in the ferry or in the cold seawater.
There was also fury among families waiting for word of passengers who were mostly high school students.
There were 475 people aboard, and some of the frantic parents of the 325 student passengers who had been heading to Jeju island for a four-day trip gathered at Danwon High School in Ansan, which is near Seoul, and on Jindo, an island near where the ferry slipped beneath the surface until only the blue-tipped, forward edge of the keel was visible.
Relatives of the three dead students wailed and sobbed as ambulances at a hospital in Mokpo, a city close to the accident site, took the bodies to Ansan. The families, who spent a mostly sleepless night at the hospital, followed the ambulances in their own cars.
The family of one of the victims, 24-year-old teacher Choi Hye-jung, spoke about a young woman who loved to boast of how her students would come to her office and give her hugs.
“She was very active and wanted to be a good leader,” her father, Choi Jae-kyu, 53, said at Mokpo Jung-Ang Hospital while waiting for the arrival of his daughter’s body. Choi’s mother, sitting on a bench at the hospital, sobbed quietly with her head bent down on her knee.
Meanwhile, more than 400 rescuers searched nearby waters overnight and into this morning. Coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in said that in the next two days, three vessels with cranes onboard would arrive to help with the rescue and salvage the ship. Divers worked round the clock in shifts in an attempt to get inside the vessel, he said. But the current wouldn’t allow them to enter.
Kim said coast guard officials were questioning the captain, but declined to provide details or speculate on the cause of sinking. Kim denied earlier reports by Yonhap news agency that the ferry had turned too swiftly when it was supposed to make a slow turn. He also declined to say whether the ferry had wandered from its usual route.
“I am really sorry and deeply ashamed,” a man identified by broadcaster YTN and Yonhap news agency as the captain, 60-year-old Lee Joon-seok, said in brief comments shown on TV, his face covered with a gray hoodie. “I don’t know what to say.”
Coast guard officers, experts on marine science and other experts and officers planned to gather today in Mokpo to start discussions on how the ship sank.
The coast guard said it found two more bodies in the sea this morning, pushing the death toll to nine. The dead have so far been identified as a female crew member in her 20s, three male high school students; an 18-year-old woman and 18-year-old man, who authorities aren’t yet sure are linked to the high school; Choi, the female high school teacher; Nam Yoon-chul, a male high school teacher; and a man named Kim Ki-woong.
Dozens were injured. Coast guard officials put the number of survivors early today at 179.
The Sewol, a 480-foot vessel that can reportedly hold more than 900 people, set sail Tuesday from Incheon, in northwestern South Korea, on an overnight, 14-hour journey to the tourist island of Jeju.