SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Nearly 300 people were still missing Wednesday several hours after a ferry carrying 477, most of them high school students, sank in cold waters off South Korea's southern coast, killing at least two and injuring seven, officials said.
A government official earlier said that more than 100 people were still unaccounted for, but officials later changed the number to 295.
There were fears of a big jump in the death toll, as dozens of boats, helicopters and divers scrambled to rescue passengers who had been on the ferry traveling to the southern tourist island of Jeju. One passenger said he believed that many people had been trapped inside the ferry when it sank.
The ferry sent a distress call at about 9 a.m. local time Wednesday after it began leaning to one side, according to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration. The government said about 95 percent of the ferry, whose passengers included 325 high school students on a school trip to the popular tourist island, was submerged.
Coast guard officers, speaking on condition of anonymity citing department rules, said at least two people died, but gave no further details, including what caused the ferry to sink.
Media photos showed wet students, some without shoes, some wrapped in blankets, tended to by emergency workers. One student, Lim Hyung-min, told broadcaster YTN from a gym on a nearby island that he and other students jumped into the ocean wearing life jackets and then swam to a nearby rescue boat.
"As the ferry was shaking and tilting, we all tripped and bumped into each another," Lim said, adding that some people were bleeding. Once he jumped, the ocean "was so cold. ... I was hurrying, thinking that I wanted to live."
The water temperature in the area was about 12 degrees Celsius, cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 90 minutes or 2 hours, according to an emergency official who spoke on condition of anonymity citing department rules. Officials said mud on the ocean floor made underwater search operations difficult.