South Korea ferry disaster: PM hit by water bottle during protest by families of passengers

Family members of missing passengers on the South Korean ferry Sewol  jostle with coastguard and police officers as they demand the immediate restart of the search operation, at a port where family members of missing passengers have gathered in
Family members of missing passengers on the South Korean ferry Sewol  jostle with coastguard and police officers as they demand the immediate restart of the search operation, at a port where family members of missing passengers have gathered in Jindo on April 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

JINDO, South Korea (AFP) - South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong Won was hit by a water bottle, according to Yonhap News Agency, during an angry protest staged by distraught relatives maintaining an agnoised vigil on shore as the frantic search for nearly 300 people - most of them schoolchildren - missing after a South Korean ferry capsized slipped into a second day on Thursday.

Six people were confirmed dead, but with every hour that passed fears mounted for the 290 still unaccounted for after the multi-storey vessel with 475 on board suddenly listed, capsized and then sank 20km offshore.

Naval and coastguard vessels used floodlights and flares to keep the search operation going through the night, but strong currents and low visibility hampered efforts by diving teams to access the submerged vessel in the hope of finding survivors trapped in air pockets.

South Korea ferry sinking map

"They were unable to enter any of the cabins," said one senior coast guard official.

The coast guard said 179 people had been rescued, a figure little changed from the previous evening.

The passengers included 375 high-school students travelling with their teachers to the popular island resort of Jeju.

On nearby Jindo Island, where anxious relatives wrapped in blankets sat throughout the night waiting for news, there was a mood of angry desperation.

When Prime Minister Chung visited the gymnasium in Jindo where the relatives were waiting, some irate parents shouted and jeered at him. He was even hit by a water bottle, reported Yonhap.

"My daughter is out there, somewhere out there in the cold sea. Please help," said mother Park Yu Shin.

Some were outraged by survivor testimony that passengers had been told not to move in the crucial period after the ferry stopped and before it listed sharply to the side.

"We must have waited 30 to 40 minutes after the crew told us to stay put," said one rescued student. "Then everything tilted over and everyone started screaming and scrambling to get out," he said.

It was still unclear what caused the 6,825-tonne Sewol to sink, although numerous passengers spoke of a loud thud and the vessel coming to an abrupt, shuddering halt - suggesting it had run aground or hit a submerged object.

Distressing mobile phone footage taken by one survivor emerged on Thursday, showing the panic on board with one woman desperately screaming: "The water's coming, the water's coming."

The captain was among those rescued, and was being questioned by coastguard officials.

A special boat packed with relatives of the missing left Jindo early on Thursday for the site of the capsized ferry.

Rescuers said they feared hundreds had been unable to escape the vessel before it became completely inverted and sank with only a small section of keel sticking above the surface.

One senior rescue team official Cho Yang Bok, said there was "little chance" of anyone trapped inside surviving for long.

Among the six confirmed dead were three students, one teacher and one crew member. One was unidentified.

The initial distress signal from the Sewol came at 9am on Wednesday, and many of the survivors were picked up by small commercial vessels that got to the scene ahead of the navy and coastguard.

Television footage showed terrified passengers wearing life jackets clambering into inflatable boats that pushed right up to the rails of the listing vessel as it sank.

President Park Geun Hye voiced shock and pain at the "tragic accident", especially with so many children on board.

"Please do not give up until the very last moment," she said during a visit to the national disaster agency's situation room in Seoul.

The US 7th Fleet sent an amphibious assault ship on patrol in the area to help, while White House spokesman Jay Carney said Washington was ready to provide its ally with "any assistance" needed.

Three giant floating cranes had been despatched to the site to begin operations to raise the submerged vessel.

Scores of ferries ply the waters between the South Korean mainland and its multiple offshore islands every day, and accidents are relatively rare.

In one of the worst incidents, nearly 300 people died when a ferry capsized off the west coast in October 1993.

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