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Hundreds of students involved in shipwreck tragedy

South Korean ferry sinks off the coast of Jindo
South Korean ferry sinks off the coast of Jindo
(AFP Photo / South Korea Coast Guard)

A South Korean ferry carrying 462 people from Seoul to the resort island of Jeju capsized Wednesday, capturing most of its passengers below deck as it flooded with frigid water. There are currently 281 people, mostly high school students, unaccounted for.

"We were told to stay where you are, so we kept staying," survivor Hyun Hung Chang told YTN . "But later on, the water level came up. So we were beside ourselves. Kids were screaming out of terror, shouting for help."

The tragedy began with a loud blast in the early morning hours, causing the ship to list to one side almost immediately. A voice over the loudspeaker ordered passengers to stay put and wait, but only individuals who ignored this order and climbed to the outer decks ended up being saved. Helicopters, rescue boats and fishermen swarmed the ferry as it sunk off the South Korean coast near the city of Jindo, picking up anyone who made it to the exterior of the ship.

“We must not give up,” President Park Geun-hye declared. “We must do our best to rescue even one of those passengers and students who may not have escaped from the ship.”

The reason for the damage to the ferry is still unclear, but some theories have began to emerge. Peter Boynton, a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain, suggested that it struck something beneath the surface of the water. Mary Schiavo, former inspector general for the Department of Transportation, pointed out that the ship was traveling through fog when it left port and may have stranded off course. Engine failures and explosions are additional possibilities.

"The speed with which this ferry began to list and then roll over on its side suggests significant damage, most likely causing major flooding that would cause a vessel of this size -- almost 500 feet long -- to quickly roll onto its side," Boynton said. "That's very likely the result of significant damage."

The ferry was carrying students, teachers, civilians and crew members when it sank. The students, in their second year of school, had been on their way to a four-day sightseeing trip on Jeju, the “Hawaii” of South Korea. Rescue divers now face cold water, low visibility and fast currents as they search for survivors.

"It's just an absolutely, positively horrific situation," said David Gallo, director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "It's nightmarish."

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