Updated on Thursday, 6:06 a.m. ET
The ferry that sank off South Korea’s south coast on Wednesday was named Sewol, or “time and tide.” Rescue workers on Thursday fought both as they raced to save hundreds believed to be still trapped inside the vessel. Boats and helicopters searched the sea, while divers worked to free people from inside the submerged hulk. According to the latest figures, nine are dead, 288 missing and 179 rescued. Given the freezing water temperature and the state of the ship, the death toll is expected to rise.
Sewol was making its twice-weekly journey from the port city of Incheon to the resort island of Jeju when it sent a distress signal at 8:58 a.m., Wednesday, local time. There were more than 400 aboard the ship, including 340 teenagers and teachers from a high school near the capital, Seoul, setting off on a four-day field trip. Several survivors told local press they heard a loud noise before the ship started tilting. An announcement urged passengers to stay put. For some, it was an impossible choice: do as asked, or disobey and leap into the frigid water.
The incident is already being called one of the country’s worst peacetime disasters, and may be the worst South Korean ferry disaster since 1993, when 292 people were killed. It is still unclear what caused the ship to sink, and so quickly. Early speculation focused on the possibility that Sewol hit a rock, although one rescuer, citing surviving members of Sewol’s crew, told Reuters the area was free of major obstacles.
Another theory is that cargo on board somehow shifted, causing the vessel to list and eventually sink. South Korean officials said the captain and crew are being questioned, but have not offered a theory of what happened. With most of the ship underwater, piecing together what happened will take time.
The rescue effort and its aftermath will no doubt challenge the government of President Park Geun-hye. “We must not give up,” Park declared on Wednesday. Speaking at the Ministry of Security and Public Administration, she said “We must do our best to rescue even one of those passengers and students who may not have escaped from the ship.” But those affected have been critical of the operation, claiming the government should be doing more, and doing it faster, to save those trapped inside. When Premier Jung Hong-won visited families waiting for news, someone threw a water bottle at him, Yonhap News Agency reported.
Survivors and families are also furious about the decision to keep passengers on board as the vessel listed. CNN reports that there were 46 lifeboats on the sunken ferry Sewol, but only one was deployed.
Survivor Koo Bon-hee, 36, criticized the crew for telling them to stay seated. “We were wearing life jackets. We had time,” he told the Associated Press. On April 17, the AP reported an immediate evacuation order wasn’t issued—instead about 30 minutes after the captain requested passengers to put on life jackets—because the ship’s officers were trying to stabilize it. “If people had jumped into the water … they would have been rescued. But we were told not to go out.”
South Korean students are accustomed to strict discipline, which may have made them more likely to follow the crew’s order. “We were asking ourselves, ‘Shouldn’t we move? Shouldn’t we try and get out?’” survivor Huh Young-ki told AFP. “But the announcement was saying help would be there in 10 minutes.”
For too many, help did not come.
— With reporting by Per Liljas / Hong Kong