Text messages from children trapped on board are cruel hoax

UPDATE: THIS morning, three huge cranes are due to attempt to lift the sunken ferry Sewol from below the sea after divers battled in vain to penetrate its hull and free almost 290 people, mostly schoolchildren. By tonight, little hope remained for finding those trapped alive, as strong winds and heavy currents stymied rescue efforts.

Reports then emerged of text messages purporting to have been sent by those trapped inside the ferry to their loved ones. However, confusion remained over the authenticity of the missives.

"This might be the last chance to say I love you," one student, named as Shin Young-jin, was reported to have texted his mother. But South Korea's National Police Agency concluded that none of the trapped passengers had sent text messages and that those said to have done so were not missing. "We will hunt down the people who wrote these messages," a police official said, vowing to "sternly punish them for hurting the families and causing confusion in the search efforts".

The sudden precarious tilt of the ship explained why many of the passengers were unable to scramble from the middle deck, where they were told by crew members to wait for lifeboats to take them off. One crew member who escaped explained that he wanted to prevent mass panic among the schoolchildren.

But some of the children, ignoring the instructions, clambered outside as the ship tilted completely to one side and jumped into the water before it capsized north of Byungpoong Island, around 290 miles from Seoul. More than a dozen bodies have been recovered from the water.

Of the 475 passengers and crew members on the ship at the time of the accident, only 179 were rescued and no more rescues appeared likely.

Despite the increasing focus of the operation on recovery rather than rescue, parents waiting at Jindo, the nearest port, were hoping their loved ones were alive in air pockets below deck.

"Bring our children back alive," several of the parents shouted when South Korea's President Park Geun-hye visited the scene. "We cannot give up," Geun-hye said. "We have to do our best to rescue even one passenger."

The tragedy prompted accusations of multiple failures, ranging from the inexperience of the crew in rescue operations to the flight of the captain and most of the crew while many others were hopelessly trapped. The ship disappeared from view almost two and a half hours after scraping against what is presumed to be a rock or rocky reef.

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, was said to have apologised on television.

"I am really sorry and deeply ashamed," he reportedly said. "I don't know what to say."

Against the background of grief, the reports of text messages increasingly appeared to have been a cruel hoax. One student was said to have texted his mother, "Mom, I love you," while another told her father, "Dad, don't worry, I've got a life vest on, we're huddled together."

He was said to have responded: "I know the rescue is under way, make your way out if you can."

She then was said to have texted back, "Dad, I can't walk out. The corridor is full of kids, and it's too tilted."

Those words, at least, appeared correct.

EARLIER: Almost 300 people remain unaccounted for after a ferry carrying 459 passengers, most of them school students, sank in cold waters off South Korea's southern coast, killing at least four and injuring up to 55 in what could be the country's biggest maritime disaster in over 20 years.

The South Korean Coast Guard warned many more are missing than the initial 100 announced, as dozens of boats, helicopters and divers scrambled to rescue passengers.

The Sewol ferry, which had been carrying students from the Danwon high school in Ansan city near Seoul, had been travelling from the north-western port of Incheon to the popular southern tourist island of Jeju for a four day trip when it capsized.

About 325 students and 15 teachers were on board at the time.

"It was fine then the ship went 'boom' and there was a noise of cargo falling," said Cha Eun-ok, who said she was on deck of the ferry taking photographs when the disaster began.

"The on-board announcement told people to stay put ... people who stayed are trapped," she said in Jindo, the nearest town from the scene of the accident.

The Coast Guard said 164 people have been rescued so far. One rescued passenger said he believed many others were trapped inside the ferry when it sank.

South Korea's Ministry of Security and Public Administration had reported that 368 people had been rescued and about 100 were still missing but later said those numbers had been miscalculated.

Emergency officials said at least 30 navy and coastguard divers are searching the ship for survivors. The US Navy has confirmed it will be sending a ship to join the rescue operation.

The US Seventh Fleet said the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard, which has helicopters on board, was on a routine patrol off South Korea's west coast and was on its way to the scene of the accident.

The Sewol vessel sent a distress call after it began listing three hours from its destination, according to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration. The government said about 95 per cent of the ferry was submerged.

Two coastguard officers said a 27-year-old woman named Park Ji-yeong and another unidentified person had died. Officials gave no further details, including what caused the ferry to sink or the conditions of the other passengers.

Images showed the ship listing at a severe angle and after it sank. "There was a banging noise then the boat suddenly started sinking," a rescued student was quoted by Yonhap News as saying.

One student, Lim Hyung-min, told broadcaster YTN from a gym on a nearby island that he jumped into the ocean wearing a life jacket with other students and then swam to a nearby rescue boat.

"As the ferry was shaking and tilting, we all tripped and bumped into each another," Lim said, adding that some people were bleeding.

The water temperature in the area was about 12C, cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 90 minutes, according to an emergency official.

Local media ran photos showing the partially submerged ferry listing dramatically as helicopters flew overhead and rescue vessels and a small boat covered with an orange tarpaulin floated nearby.

Passenger Kim Seong-mok, speaking from a nearby island after his rescue, told YTN he was "certain" that many people were trapped inside the ship as water quickly filled up inside and the severe tilt of the ferry kept them from reaching the exits.

Some people yelled at those who could not get out, urging them to break windows.

Kim said that after having breakfast he felt the ferry tilt and then heard it crash into something. He said the ferry operator made an announcement asking that passengers wait and not move from their places. Kim said he did not hear any announcement telling passengers to escape.

Parents have been waiting anxiously at the Danwon high school for news about the ferry.

At least 87 vessels and 18 aircraft have assisted the stricken ship, Lee Gyeong-og, a vice minister for South Korea's Public Administration and Security Ministry, said.

Fifty-five people have been injured so far, one seriously, and taken to hospital.

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