SEOUL - South Korea said Wednesday that two people were killed and 368 rescued from a ferry that capsized at sea with 477 people on board - mostly high school students - as divers searched for scores still missing.
Officials voiced concern over the fate of the 107 people unaccounted for, fearing that many may have been trapped as the vessel listed sharply before capsizing.
Dramatic television aerial footage showed terrified passengers wearing life jackets clambering into inflatable boats as water lapped over the rails of the vessel as it sank.
Many appeared to have been rescued by fishing and other commercial vessels who were first on the scene before a flotilla of coastguard and navy ships arrived, backed by helicopters.
The 6,825-tonne ferry, which had sailed out of the western port of Incheon on Tuesday evening, ran into trouble some 20 kilometres (13 miles) off the southern island of Byungpoong.
Coastguard officials said they had received a distress call at 9:00 am (0000 GMT). The weather conditions were described as "fine" with moderate winds and sea swell.
The cause of the accident was not immediately clear, although rescued passengers reported the ferry coming to a shuddering halt after hearing a loud noise - indicating it may have run aground.
Photos broadcast on television showed the ship initially tilted by more than 45 degrees on the port side with helicopters flying overhead, and then fully capsized with only a small section of the stern showing above the water.
"So far, 368 have been rescued," Lee Gyeong-Og, the vice minister of security and public administration, told a press briefing in Seoul.
Lee said two people had been confirmed dead, including one female crew member, and added that a detachment of South Korean Navy SEALS were continuing to search the submerged ship.
One local official who had taken a boat to the site and arrived an hour after the distress signal was sent, said he was "very concerned" about those still unaccounted for.
"The ship was already almost totally submerged when I got there. A lot of people must have been trapped," the official, who declined to be identified, to ld AFP by phone. The video footage showed passengers sliding down the steeply inclined side of the ferry and into the water, as rescuers, including the crew of what appeared to be a small fishing boat, struggled to pull them to safety on board.