MOKPO, South Korea — Fears rose Thursday for the fate of 289 passengers still missing more than 24 hours after their ferry flipped onto its side and filled with water off the southern coast of South Korea.
A coast guard official said the death toll was now confirmed at seven, but that is expected to rise sharply because the missing have now spent more than a day either trapped in the ferry or in the cold seawater.
There were 475 people aboard — many of them high school students on a class trip — and frantic parents have gathered at their school near Seoul and in Mokpo in the south of the country, not far from where the ferry slipped beneath the surface until only the blue-tipped, forward edge of the keel was visible.
Divers, helicopters and boats continued their search Thursday for survivors, but the high number of people unaccounted for — possibly trapped in the ship or floating in the chilly water nearby — raised fears that the death toll could increase drastically.
Coast guard’s spokesman Cho Man-yong said Thursday morning that rescuers in a vessel had found another body floating in the sea, raising the confirmed death toll to seven. It was not immediately known whether the body was male or female.
It was still unknown why the ferry sank, but coast guard officials were interviewing the captain and crew. The Sewol, a 146-meter (480-foot) vessel that can hold more than 900 people, set sail Tuesday from Incheon, in northwestern South Korea, on an overnight, 14-hour journey to the tourist island of Jeju.
The ferry was three hours from its destination when it sent a distress call after it began listing to one side, according to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration.
Passenger Kim Seong-mok told broadcaster YTN that after having breakfast, he felt the ferry tilt and then heard it crash into something. He said he was certain that many people were trapped inside the ferry as water rushed in and the severe tilt of the vessel kept them from reaching the exits.