Death Toll Expected To Climb In South Korea Ferry Disaster

Dozens of boats, helicopters and divers scrambled Wednesday to rescue more than 470 people after a ferry sank off South Korea's southern coast. Among those on the boat, 325 high school students.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Nearly 300 people are missing after a ferry sank off the coast of South Korea. At least four people have died and over 50 are injured. There has been a lot of confusion surrounding this incident. Initial reports suggested most of the passengers had been rescued, but those reports turned out to be incorrect. A U.S. Navy ship is joining around 100 other vessels involved in ongoing rescue operations. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been monitoring this situation from Beijing. We spoke to him earlier. And we began by asking Anthony where the ship going and who was onboard.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The ship was headed from Inchon on South Korea's west coast to the island of Jeju. It's a resort island off the south coast. There were about 477 people on board. Most of them were high school students from a school near Seoul going on a field trip. The ferry set out on late Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. it was sending out an S.O.S. signal.

The boat was about 12 miles from the nearest island off the south coast at that time and ships started to arrive after about a half hour. The ship started to lift to its port side and then after about two hours it went under, except for a piece of its hull that stuck out.

GREENE: So Anthony, a lot of people on board the ship, a lot of teenagers, it sounds like. And at first we heard that most people were rescued. Sadly, it doesn't look like that's true. I mean I know how tricky it is to get firm numbers in these situations, but has this been sorted out now?

KUHN: Well, clearly it was a very chaotic situation there, David. There are reports saying that officials miscalculated the numbers, that there was information coming from too many sources. Basically there was an hour and a half to get the students and other people off the boat. Some were plucked off by helicopters, others were jumping into the water and were fished out onto boats and then taken to hospitals onshore.

Now, this was a really big ferry. It could hold as many as 900 people, lots of cars and trucks on board, and reports are saying that many of the people who are missing may have been below deck in the dining, shopping and entertainment quarters. And if those people are not rescued, it could turn out to be one of the biggest offshore ship disasters for South Korea ever.

GREENE: But the rescue operation still underway. Explain what's happening exactly.

KUHN: Once it happened, South Korean Navy, Coast Guard and commercial ships were all mobilized to head to the area. A ship from the U.S. 7th Fleet, an amphibious assault ship, also went over there. South Korea's President Park Geun-hye called for all-out efforts to rescue those people trapped. Divers are going underwater to look for survivors, but they're being hampered by strong currents in the area.

GREENE: And Anthony, just a few seconds left, but any clues yet as to what caused this ship to sink?

KUHN: Well, survivors told local media that they heard a loud bang before the ship started to tilt and that suggests that it may have hit something underwater, but for right now they're going to focus on the rescue efforts and worry about the cause later.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing reporting on the sinking of a ferry off South Korea's coast earlier today. Anthony, thank you.

KUHN: Thank you, David.

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