AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Tragedy in South Korea today. Hundreds are missing after a ferry sank off the country's southern coast. At least six people are confirmed dead so far, but there is fear that the death toll will rise dramatically. Passengers who were rescued said they believe many more were trapped below deck.
We're joined now by Jason Strother. He's a journalist based in Seoul.
And, Jason, first can you tell us about what happened here? Where was this ferry headed and who was on board?
JASON STROTHER: This ferry departed from the Port of Incheon near Seoul on Tuesday night. But early this morning, it sent out a distress call alerting the Coast Guard that there was a problem at sea. And by the time the Coast Guard had arrived, the boat had already begun to capsize. Of its 460 passengers, 320 were students from a high school just south of Seoul, as well as about a dozen of their teachers.
They were headed to Jeju Island, which is off the south coast of the peninsula. It's a popular tourist destination. It has some historical significance. These students were on a class trip and it's feared that the majority of those still unaccounted for from the ship are from that high school.
CORNISH: Describe the rescue effort.
STROTHER: The South Korean Coast Guard, the navy, they were all mobilized. Many helicopters and boats and then small rafts were brought up to the ship before it went completely under. They really brought out all the manpower they could. Even the U.S. Navy got involved. A naval ship was dispatched that had already been on patrol in the waters to that area to help out with the recovery.
So South Korea really gave it all it could. However, with perhaps hundreds of people still unaccounted for, they could only do so much.
CORNISH: And what's been happening with the families, the parents that are trying to get information?
STROTHER: They're all from one city that's about an hour south of Seoul called Ansan. Of course, they're at the school. Families have gathered to try to get information. Other parents have gone down to the island of Jindo; it's one of the closest land points, let's say, to where the boat sank. But I think they're just as confused as anyone else.
I was just watching some Korean local news here just, you know, the families are just wailing in front of lists of who are the survivors. There's a lot of confusion and I think there is going to be. And there won't be much closure until officials here can say who did and did not actually survive this terrible accident.
CORNISH: Meantime, is there any information about what caused the boat to sink?
STROTHER: Well, Audie, initially there had been concern that bad weather conditions perhaps affected the crew's ability to see where they were going, that they had crashed into a rock or a reef. However, I've spoken with some people who have some experience down there in those waters. And they said the area where the boat was, it wasn't known to have any reefs; and it's not an area where ships normally have to carefully navigate. So it's still a mystery.
And I think as a salvage team comes in, gets the boat out of the water and back onto land, it will only be then that authorities will definitively be able to say what happened to the ship.
CORNISH: Jason, has anything like this happened before in South Korea?
STROTHER: Not to my knowledge. I mean, the media here is saying that if the death toll matches close to what the number of unaccounted for currently is, then it will be the greatest maritime tragedy in South Korean history. South Koreans - probably every South Korean has ridden on one of these types of ferries before. There are many inhabited islands around the peninsula and these types of incidents don't happen. So I think that's really contributed to the shock that many people are feeling right now.
CORNISH: That's reporter Jason Strother, talking to us from Seoul, South Korea. Thank you so much.
STROTHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.