(ATTN: UPDATES lead, 6-9 paras with latest figures; CHANGES headline)
SEOUL/JINDO, South Korea, April 16 (Yonhap) -- Military divers searched a ferry that sank off South Korea's southern coast Wednesday as the death toll from the accident climbed to four amid fears that many of the 284 people still unaccounted for could be trapped inside.
More than 100 Navy, Coast Guard and other vessels and aircraft also scoured the area for the missing in what could be one of the deadliest offshore accidents in South Korea's modern history.
After struggling for hours to get into the sunken vessel amid poor underwater visibility and strong currents, a team of Navy divers succeeded in entering the vessel and searched three of its compartments, but they found no bodies, Navy officials said.
A second team of divers was to go underwater soon, officials said.
The accident happened Wednesday morning when the 6,325-ton Sewol was carrying 462 people, including 325 students from a high school in Ansan, just south of Seoul. The vessel sent a distress signal at 8:58 a.m. in waters 20 kilometers off the island of Byeongpung and started sinking.
Of the passengers, 174 have been rescued, four died and 284 remain unaccounted for, officials said.
The government had earlier announced that 164 were rescued, but officials later acknowledged there was an error in tallying up figures.
"A total of 174 are confirmed to have survived as of 7:00 p.m., while we continue to aggregate the number of survivors through various channels," a government official said.
Some 13 hours after the accident, however, fears were growing that many of those listed as missing could be trapped inside the sunken vessel. Low water temperatures, darkness, and fast currents were making the situation worse for any possible survivors, the official added.
Two of the four dead were a 27-year-old female crew member and a high school student. The crew member was found dead in the ship, while the student died after being rescued. A third death was confirmed later in the day after the body of a male believed to be a student was found. No detailed information was given about the fourth victim.
Dozens of others were taken to hospitals with broken bones, burns and other injuries.
"There is not much time left before sunset. Please make the best efforts to rescue even one more person," President Park Geun-hye said during a visit to the central disaster management office in Seoul. Park said she feels "truly devastated."
The accident prompted a massive rescue operation involving about 40 Coast Guard and military vessels and a dozen military aircraft and helicopters. About 200 Navy special forces and divers were also mobilized to search the sunken ship, the defense ministry said
Military divers will enter the sunken ferry starting at 5 p.m. in efforts to find the missing passengers, a ministry official said. The ship sank at a depth of 30 meters, with the ocean currents flowing at a speed of 8 km per hour.
Additional forces and ships are on the way to the area, the Navy said.
A U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship equipped with two helicopters, which was on its routine patrol mission in the western sea, was also moving to the scene to help with the rescue operation, U.S. Seventh Fleet said.
Television footage showed the ship sinking on its side and rescue workers in black uniforms trying to help passengers leave the vessel as helicopters were flying overhead. Rescued passengers were wrapped in beige blankets one by one after arriving at a nearby port.
The ill-fated ship completely capsized and sank in two hours.
The cause of the accident was not known, though survivors said they heard a banging noise before the ship suddenly started sinking. Speculation has arisen that the ship might have hit an underwater rock or collided with another vessel.
"There was a bang and then the ship suddenly tilted over," said a survivor identified by his surname Yoo, 57. "Downstairs were restaurants, shops and entertainment rooms, and those who were there are feared to have failed to escape."
The government said the priority is rescue operations.
"We will try to determine the cause of the accident after rescue operations are over," said Second Vice Home Affairs Minister Lee Gyeong-og said during a press briefing in Seoul.
Lee said the government will mobilize all available resources to search for the missing.
The ferry set off from the western port of Incheon on Tuesday evening later than scheduled due to dense fog, and was to arrive at the southern resort island of Jeju later on Wednesday. The students were on their way to Jeju for a four-day school trip.
The ship, which plies between Incheon and Jeju twice a week, was built in Japan in 1994, is 146 meter long and 22 meter wide, and has the maximum capacity of carrying 921 people, 180 vehicles and 152 shipping containers at the same time.
President Park Geun-hye was immediately briefed on the accident, and she ordered maximum efforts to rescue all of the passengers, stressing that all available Navy, Coast Guard and other vessels nearby should be mobilized, her spokesman said.
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