JINDO: Rescuers worked frantically yesterday to find around 300 people, mostly schoolchildren, missing after a South Korean ferry capsized, with prospects of pulling survivors from the submerged vessel dimming as emotions boiled over among anguished relatives.
Worsening weather fuelled the sombre mood, with persistent rain and choppy seas hindering dive teams struggling with low visibility and strong currents.
Nine people were confirmed dead, but with every hour that passed fears mounted for the 287 still unaccounted for after the multi-deck vessel with 475 on board listed, capsized and sank within 90 minutes on Wednesday morning.
“Honestly, I think the chances of finding anyone alive are close to zero,” a coastguard official said on one of the boats at the site.
He said more than 500 divers, 169 vessels and 29 aircraft were involved in the rescue operation.
But distraught relatives gathered in a gymnasium on nearby Jindo island insisted more should be done, and vented their frustration when President Park Geun-Hye came to inspect the rescue effort.
“What are you doing when people are dying! Time is running out!” one woman screamed as Park who tried to address the volatile crowd with her security detail standing by nervously.
A total of 375 high school students were on board, travelling with their teachers to the popular island resort of Jeju.
When Prime Minister Chung Hong-Won visited the gymnasium earlier in the day, he was jostled and shouted at, and water bottles were thrown.
“Don’t run away, Mr. Prime Minister!” one mother said, blocking him as he tried to leave. “Please tell us what you’re planning to do.”
The coastguard said 179 people had been rescued, a figure that has remained constant since the evening before, undermining hopes of more survivors being found.
It was still unclear what caused the 6,825-tonne Sewol to sink.
Numerous passengers spoke of a loud thud and the vessel coming to an abrupt, shuddering halt, suggesting it had run aground or hit a submerged object.
But the captain, Lee Joon-Seok, who survived and was being questioned by investigators, insisted it had not hit any rocks.
Pulling a hood over his head and face as he was surrounded by camera crews in the coastguard offices, Lee mumbled an apology.
“I feel really sorry for the passengers, victims and families,” he said.
Experts suggested the ferry cargo, which included 150 cars, might have shifted, irretrievably destabilising the vessel.
Distressing mobile phone footage taken by one survivor showed the panic on board with one woman screaming “The water’s coming, the water’s coming!”
There was growing public anger over multiple survivor testimony that passengers had been ordered to stay in their seats and cabins when the ferry first foundered.
“We must have waited 30 to 40 minutes after the crew told us to stay put,” said one rescued student. AFP