HUNDREDS of children are feared dead after a school trip to a holiday island turned to disaster when a ferry sank off South Korea.
Four people, including two pupils and a female crew member, have been confirmed dead and another 283 people are still missing.
A rescue operation involving divers was launched after the Sewol – with 462 people on board – capsized 12 miles off the South Korean coast yesterday.
A total of 174 people have been rescued from the ferry, 55 of them injured.
The vessel, which was mainly carrying school students, was travelling from Incheon, in the north-west of the country, to the southern resort island of Jeju.
Survivors said passengers had been told to stay put, raising fears that many had gone down with the ship.
Eyewitness Kim Seong-mok said he was certain a lot of people had been trapped when water quickly rushed in and the severe list of the vessel prevented them from reaching the exits.
He said the ferry operator made an announcement asking passengers to wait and not move from their places. He said he did not hear any announcement telling passengers to escape.
The cause of the disaster was unclear last night but those rescued spoke of hearing a “loud impact” before the ship started to roll on to its side.
Cha Eun-ok, who was on deck taking photographs, said: “It was fine. Then the ship went ‘boom’ and there was a noise of cargo falling.
“The on-board announcement told people to stay put – people who stayed are trapped.”
The rescue operation included 16 divers, 140 coastguard staff, at least 87 vessels and 18 helicopters. Dramatic footage showed rescuers clambering over the sides of the stricken ferry, pulling out terrified passengers.
The US navy has sent an amphibious assault ship, the USS Bonhomme Richard, to assist.
The 480ft Sewol overturned and sank slowly. Within a few hours, only its blue-and-white bow was left sticking out of 121ft of water.
Divers initially failed to get inside because the current was too strong, officials said.
Lim Hyung-min said he had joined other pupils in putting on lifejackets and jumping into the water. He said: “As the ferry was shaking and tilting, we all tripped and bumped into each another.”
After jumping, he said the sea “was so cold – I was hurrying, thinking that I wanted to live”.
Survivors were taken to nearby Jindo island for medical treatment. Those rescued included a five-year-old girl.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye said it was “truly tragic” that students on a field trip were involved in “such an unfortunate accident”.
Kim Young-boong, an official from the company which owns the ferry, said: “I would like to say sorry to the passengers, which include a number of students and their parents, and promise that our company will do its best to minimise loss of life.”
The ferry left Incheon on Tuesday night for a 14-hour journey to Jeju, 60 miles south of the mainland.
The pupils, thought to be mainly 16 and 17-year-olds, were from Danwon High School in Ansan. They were on a four-day trip to the resort, which is a popular destination for school visits.
The ferry sank three hours from the island, off South Korea’s south-west coast, after sending a distress call.
Those on board included 325 high school pupils, 15 teachers, 89 other passengers and 30 crew.
The ship, which travelled twice a week between Incheon and Jeju, was built in Japan in 1994 and could carry up to 921 people, 180 vehicles and 152 shipping containers.