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Seoul, April 17 (IANS) A passenger ship carrying 475 people, mostly high school students, capsised in waters off South Korea’s southwest coast on Wednesday, leaving at least six people dead and 290 others missing, the media reported on Thursday.
Six people, including a crew member, four high school students and a teacher, were confirmed dead on Thursday, with 179 people rescued and 290 others still missing, Xinhua reported citing the country’s central disaster and safety countermeasures headquarters.
The passengers on board the sunken vessel included 325 high school students and 15 teachers who had been on the way for a four-day school trip. The ship departed South Korea’s western port city of Incheon on Tuesday night for the southern resort island of Jeju.
Among the rescued, 78 were students from the Danwon High School in Ansan, a Seoul suburb. Almost 70 percent of those aboard were from the high school.
The death toll was expected to rise as hundreds of passengers were still missing almost a day after the 6,825-tonne passenger ship, "Sewol," capsized and sank off Jindo Island, near the southwest corner of the Korean Peninsula, at around 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday.
The ship sent out a distress signal at about 8:52 a.m. on Wednesday and had remained afloat in the waters for some two and a half hours with its body being tilted.
The Coast Guard said that most of those missing were believed to be trapped inside the sunken vessel, resuming search operations into the hull together with navy divers from 7 a.m.
Almost 180 divers were dispatched to the scene, while 30 airplanes and 170 rescue ships were mobilised for the night-time search operations.
The US Seventh Fleet 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.
The rescue operations would have troubles on Thursday as it will rain and strong winds will blow near the area of the scene, according to the weather forecast.
Salvage operations will start as early as on Friday morning as it will take time for three cranes to arrive at the scene.
The vessel was believed to run aground in the waters as some rescued passengers said the ship began leaning to the port side after making a thumping sound on the bow. The ferry veered off the route as it departed some two and a half hours later than scheduled due to a thick fog.
Other rescued passengers said an announcement was made through the loudspeakers in the vessel warning them not to move as it would be dangerous. It was said to have raised the death toll as many passengers failed to escape from the vessel.
The ferry’s captain who had gone on vacation was replaced by a substitute surnamed Lee, who the ship’s operator Chonghaejin Marine claimed is a veteran with eight years of experience on the Incheon-Jeju Island route.
This is the second accident involving a Chonghaejin Marine vessel in three weeks. Another Chonghaejin ferry hit a 7.93-tonne fishing boat on March 28 en route from Incheon to Baengnyeong Island in the West Sea. The 396-tonne ship was carrying about 140 passengers and no injuries were reported.