A multi—storey ferry carrying 459 people, mostly high school students on an overnight trip to a tourist island, sank off South Korea’s southern coast today, leaving nearly 300 people missing despite a frantic, hours—long rescue by ships and helicopters.

At least three people were confirmed dead and 55 injured.

The high number of people unaccounted for likely trapped in the ship or floating in the ocean raised fears that the death toll could rise drastically, making it one of South Korea’s biggest ferry mishaps since 1993 when 292 people died.

One student, Lim Hyung—min, told broadcaster YTN after being rescued that he and other students jumped into the ocean wearing life jackets 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. Once he jumped, the ocean “was so cold. ... I was hurrying, thinking that I wanted to live.”

Local television stations broadcast live pictures of the ship, Sewol, listing to its side and slowly sinking even as passengers were jumping out or being winched up by helicopters. At least 87 vessels and 18 aircraft swarmed around the stricken ship.

Rescuers clambered over its sides, pulling out passengers wearing orange life jackets. But the ship overturned completely and continued to sink slowly. Within a few hours only its blue—and—white bow was seen sticking out of the water. Very soon that too had disappeared.

Some 160 coast guard and navy divers searching for survivors inside the ship’s wreckage, a few kilometres from the shore of Byeongpung Island, which is not too far from the mainland. The area is about 470 kilometres from Seoul.

Lee Gyeong—og, a vice minister for South Korea’s Public Administration and Security Ministry, said 30 crew members, 325 high school students, 15 school teachers and 89 non—student passengers were aboard the ship.

The ship had set sail from Incheon, a city in the northern part of the country and the site of South Korea’s main international airport, last night for an overnight, 14—hour journey to the tourist island of Jeju.

About three hours from its destination, the ferry sent a distress call at about 9 am local time today after it began listing to one side, according to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration. Officials didn’t know what caused it to sink, and said the focus was still on rescuing survivors.

Kang Byung—kyu, a government minister, said the two dead are a female crew member and a male believed to be a student.

A third body was found in the water but details were sketchy.

He said 164 people were rescued, of whom 55 were injured.

He said 292 people were missing, likely either trapped inside the ship or floating in the ocean.

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. One rescued passenger said he believed that many people had been trapped inside the ferry when it sank.

The ferry sent a distress call at about 9 am (local time) on Wednesday after it began leaning to one side, according to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration. The government said about 95 per cent of the ferry, whose passengers included 325 high school students on a school trip to the popular tourist island, was submerged.

Two Coastguard officers said that a 27-year-old woman named Park Ji-yeong and another unidentified person had died.

Photos showed wet students wrapped in blankets as emergency workers tended to them.

A 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 ship was shaking and tilting, we all tripped and bumped into each another,” Mr. Lim said, adding that some people were bleeding. Once he jumped, the ocean “was so cold. ... I was hurrying, thinking that I wanted to live.”

Local media ran photos showing the partially submerged ship tilting dramatically as helicopters flew overhead and rescue vessels and a small boat covered with an orange tarp over it floated nearby.

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.

The students are from a high school in Ansan city near Seoul and were on their way to Jeju island for a four-day trip, according to a relief team set up by Gyeonggi Province, which governs the city. The ferry left Incheon port, just west of Seoul, on Tuesday evening, according to Busan Regional Maritime Affairs & Port Administration.

At the high school, students were sent home and parents gathered for news about the ferry.

A total of 16 helicopters, 34 rescue vessels and Navy divers were sent to the area, Lee Gyeong-Og, a Vice Minister for South Korea’s Public Administration and Security Ministry, told a televised news conference. He said 14 had been injured so far, including one described as serious, and taken to hospitals.

Later on Wednesday, 21 Navy and 11 Coastguard divers began searching the near-sunken ship for survivors, according to emergency officials.

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