ABC NEWS -- Nearly 300 people are missing and at least four are confirmed dead after a ferry carrying 462 people, many of them students, sank in cold waters off South Korea’s southern coast Wednesday.
There were fears of a big jump in the number of deaths, as dozens of boats, helicopters and divers scrambled to rescue passengers who had been on the ferry travelling to the southern island of Jeju. Those rescue efforts will continue overnight. One rescued passenger said he believed that many people had been trapped inside the ferry when it sank.
The confirmed fatalities are a female crew member, 22, and a male student.
The ferry, identified as the Sewol, was sailing to the southern island of Jeju when it sent a distress call as it began leaning to one side. The passengers include more than 300 students from Danwon High School in Ansan, near Seoul, who were on a school trip.
Passenger Kim Seong-mok, speaking from a nearby island after his rescue, told YTN that 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 couldn't 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 didn't hear any announcement telling passengers to escape.
Coast Guard crews tried to break into the ferry, searching for anyone left behind, but they were unable to do so since the vessel has sunk more than 100 feet below the water's surface.
Officials said mud on the ocean floor made underwater search operations difficult.
The water temperature in the area was about 55 degrees Fahrenheit, cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 90 minutes or 2 hours, according to an emergency official who spoke on condition of anonymity citing department rules.
Photographs show the partially submerged ferry tilting dramatically as helicopters flew overhead and rescue vessels and a small boat covered with an orange tarp over it floated nearby.
The students were on their way to Jeju island for a four-day trip. The trip from Incheon to Jeju is usually about 14 hours, so the ferry was about three hours from its destination when it made the distress call.
At the high school, students were sent home and parents gathered for news about the ferry.
Official estimates of the missing, dead and even the number of passengers on the ship varied wildly as the search went on. A government official had earlier said that more than 100 people were unaccounted for, but officials later boosted the number to 295 missing and then changed it to 293.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.