BEIJING — Hopes had dimmed Wednesday that the nearly 300 missing passengers who were trapped aboard a sunken ferry had survived after divers spent hours searching the vessel and had yet to find anyone alive.
"I'm afraid there's little chance for those trapped inside still to be alive," rescue official Cho Yang-Bok told YTN television.
Survivors plucked from the frigid sea or hoisted from the sinking boat by helicopter crews told of panic as passengers head a loud bang and then the ship suddenly lurched over, sending furniture and people sliding to the port side.
"As the ferry was shaking and tilting, we all tripped and bumped into each another," student Lim Hyung-min said, retelling who he and others jumped into the ocean in lief jackets and swam to a rescue boat.
The water "was so cold. ... I was hurrying, thinking that I wanted to live."
Six people had been confirmed dead as of Thursday morning and 284 people had yet to be accounted for. Families of the missing stood at a dock, crying and holding each other. Boats circled the sunken ferry into the night, illuminated by red flares.
The Sewol set off from Incheon, a city in South Korea's northwest, on Tuesday night for a 14-hour journey to the tourist island of Jeju with 462 people aboard. Most of the passengers were students from a high school in Ansan, just south of Seoul.
The 480-foot-long ship was authorized to carry more than 900 people and 180 vehicles, according to Korea news media reports.
Though the cause of the disaster had not been determined officially, the ferry was sailing along a different route to make up for lost time due to heavy fog, Korean television station Arirang said.
Setting off later than expected, the captain changed the ship's path to make port on time, sailing through an area known to have rocky shoals, the station said.
"There was a bang, and then the ship suddenly tilted over," said a 57-year-old survivor, identified only by the surname Yoo, Yonhap news agency reported.
Some of those who managed to escape the ship told Korean media that the captain had told passengers to remain where they were, which may have reduced their chances of survival, they said.
"I ran into my room, after I heard the announcement. But things didn't seem right," a female student who jumped into the water told a local TV station, the Korea Times newspaper reported.
Passengers on the left side of the ferry who followed the captain's instructions may have been trapped in the sinking ship as it listed, said the paper, while those on the right or starboard side could crawl out of portholes and jump into the sea or wait for helicopter buckets to be lowered down.
Divers searched three compartments of the ferry, which sank after floating for several hours on its side. About 160 divers searched throughout the night in the hope that passengers may have found pockets of air for breathing inside the sunken ship.
"We cannot give up," said South Korean President Park Geun-hye. "We have to do our best to rescue even one passenger."
The Sewol was three hours from its destination about 9 a.m. Wednesday when it sent a distress call, said the Ministry of Security and Public Administration. The ship was soon surrounded by ships and helicopters and rescuers plucked dazed students, many wearing life jackets, out of the water or off the vessel's side.
Yonhap said 175 people had been rescued before the ship turned belly up and sank. Ships, airplanes and helicopters buzzed around the hull in a continuing search for survivors in the swift-moving, muddy water 12 miles off the island of Byeongpoong.
Arirang TV interviewed several survivors cloaked in blankets who said the sea was calm before the disaster.
"Then all of a sudden, the ship felt like it flipped on its side violently," an elderly man lying on a rescue ship told the station. "People were cornered and they couldn't get out of their cabins because they couldn't open the doors."
A male student said he was yelling for 40 minutes before he was rescued.
"Things were falling and people were sliding down the ship," he said.
At Ansan Danwon High School, students were sent home and parents gathered for news about the ferry. Park Ji-hee, a first-year student, said she saw about a dozen parents crying at the school entrance.Parents clung to cellphones awaiting calls from their children.
Contributing: Associated Press