SEOUL — South Korean coastguard vessels and helicopters pulled passengers off a stricken ferry as it sank on Wednesday off the southern coast with around 450 passengers on board – mostly high school students.
There were no immediate reports of any casualties, but Lee Gyeong-Og, the vice minister of security and public administration, told reporters in Seoul that he could only confirm the rescue of 110 passengers so far.
Photos broadcast on television showed the ferry tilted over 45 degrees on the port side with helicopters flying overhead, and then fully capsized with only its stern visible.
The ferry, bound for the southern resort island of Jeju, send out a distress signal at 9:00am (0000 GMT) with passenger testimony suggesting it may have run aground.
"We heard a big thumping sound and the boat stopped," one passenger told the YTN news channel by telephone.
"The boat is tilting and we have to hold on to something to stay seated," the passenger said.
The 6,825-tonne ferry, which had sailed out of the western port of Incheon on Tuesday evening, ran into trouble some 20 kilometres off the island of Byungpoong.
It was carrying a total of 476 passengers and crew, of which 325 were high school students on a trip to Jeju island – known as "South Korea's Hawaii" and one of the country's most popular tourist destinations.
Og said a total of 34 naval, coastguard and civilian vessels were involved in the rescue operation, along with 18 helicopters.
Og said President Park Geun-Hye in a personal message "ordered us to make efforts not to leave a single casualty." The ferry manifest included 150 cars. — AFP