April 15, 2014 11:40 PM EDT

Updated: April 17, 2014, 12:00 a.m. E.T.

Divers continue to search the sunken Sewol ferry off the South Korean coast, but strong currents and poor visibility are hampering rescue efforts, and hopes of finding any of the 288 still unaccounted-for passengers alive are rapidly diminishing.

The ship, heading from Incheon to the resort island of Jeju, transmitted a distress signal at 9 a.m. local time on Wednesday and sank into freezing waters within two hours. A massive rescue operation saved 179 of the 475 passengers, the majority of them students and teachers going on a four-day school trip. There are nine confirmed fatalities.

On Thursday, heartbreaking text messages between anxious parents and students trapped in the sinking ferry emerged in local media.

ABC News reported that texts between a still missing 18-year-old student and her father were broadcast on the South Korean news station MBC News.

“Dad, don’t worry. I’ve got a life vest on, and we’re huddled together,” wrote the student, identified only by her last name, Shin.

The father replied, “I know the rescue is under way, but make your way out if you can.”

“Dad, I can’t walk out,” she replied. “The corridor is full of kids, and it’s too tilted.”

There have been nine confirmed fatalities so far, all of them under 30 years old.

Currently, 169 vessels and 29 aircraft are involved in the search effort. Two salvage cranes are expected to arrive at the scene on Friday morning to raise the submerged ship.

The cause of the incident is still unknown, but survivors spoke of a loud crash, leading to speculation that the ferry collided with a rock.

Passenger Koo Bon-hee, 36, told Associated Press that many people had tried, but been unable to break the windows to get out.

“The rescue wasn’t done well. We were wearing life jackets. We had time,” he said. “If people had jumped into the water … they would have been rescued. But we were told not to go out.”

Coast-guard officials have said the ferry deviated from a government-recommended route, and they are currently questioning the captain, who was reportedly among the first to leave the ship.

The government has received a significant amount of flak for its handling of the disaster, with announcements on how many people were on board and how many had been saved being revised on a number of occasions. It was initially stated that only about 100 people were missing.


More Must-Read Stories From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com.

Read More From TIME
You May Also Like