SEOUL, South Korea — A ferry carrying 459 people, mostly high school students on an overnight trip to a tourist island, sank off South Korea's southern coast Wednesday, leaving nearly 300 people missing despite a frantic, hours-long rescue by dozens of ships and helicopters. At least four people were confirmed dead and 55 injured.
The high number of people unaccounted for — likely trapped in the ship or floating in the ocean — raised fears that the death toll could rise drastically, making it one of South Korea's biggest ferry disasters since 1993, when 292 people died.
Local television stations broadcast live pictures of the ship, Sewol, listing to its side and slowly sinking as passengers jumped out or were winched up by helicopters. At least 87 vessels and 18 aircraft swarmed around the stricken ship. Rescuers clambered over its sides, pulling out passengers wearing orange life jackets. But the ship overturned completely and continued to sink slowly. .
Some 160 coast guard and navy divers searched for survivors inside the ship's wreckage a few miles from Byeongpung Island, which is not far from the mainland. The area is about 290 miles from Seoul.
Those rescued — wet, stunned and many without shoes — were taken to nearby Jindo Island, where medical teams wrapped them in pink blankets and checked them for injuries before settling them down on the floor of a cavernous gymnasium hall.
The ship had set sail from Incheon, a city in South Korea's northwest and the site of the country's main international airport, on Tuesday night for an overnight, 14-hour journey to the tourist island of Jeju.
Three hours from its destination, the ferry sent a distress call after it began listing to one side, according to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration. Officials didn't know what caused it to sink and said the focus was still on rescuing survivors.
Lee Gyeong-og, a vice minister for South Korea's Public Administration and Security Ministry, said 30 crew members, 325 high school students, 15 school teachers and 89 non-student passengers were aboard the ship.
Kang Byung-kyu, a government minister, said two of the dead were a female crew member and a male high school student. He said a third body was also believed to be that of a student. A coast guard officer confirmed a fourth fatality but had no immediate details about it.
Kang said 164 people were rescued, of whom 55 were injured. Officials said 292 people were missing.