Almost 300 people were missing after a ferry sank off South Korea, in what could be the country's biggest peacetime disaster in nearly 20 years. Sarah Toms reports.

Divers fighting strong currents have searched three compartments of a submerged South Korean ferry, but found no sign of 284 people — most of them high school students — still missing after the vessel sank off South Korea's southern coast Wednesday.

At least four of the 459 people aboard are confirmed dead and 55 are injured.

More than 100 navy, coast guard and other vessels and aircraft are engaged in the search for survivors in a broad swath of water 12 miles off the island of Byeongpoong where the ferry went down. U.S. Navy ship Bonhomme Richard joined the rescue efforts.

Divers operating in murky, 50-degree water at a depth of at least 90 feet managed to enter the vessel but found no survivors or bodies, according to Navy officials, the Yonghap news agency reported.

As of 7 p.m. local time, 174 people had been rescued and 284 were still unaccounted for, The Korea Herald reported.

Two of the dead were identified as 22-year-old Park Ji-young, a staff worker for the ferry company, and Jung Cha-woong, a student at Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi province, the newspaper said.

Ships, airplanes and helicopters buzzed around the side as the 450-foot-long ferry listed and slowly sank. Rescuers pulled dazed students, many wearing life jackets, out of the water or off the vessel.

Lee Gyeong-og, a vice minister for South Korea's Public Administration and Security Ministry, said 30 crewmembers, 325 high school students, 15 school teachers and 89 non-student passengers were aboard the ship.

Kang Byung-kyu, a government minister, said the two dead are a female crewmember and a male student. A third body was found in the water but details were sketchy. A coast guard officer confirmed a fourth fatality but had no immediate details about it.

Even after the ferry went down, divers continued to search for survivors who may have found pockets of air in the submerged wreckage.

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One student, Lim Hyung-min, told broadcaster YTN after being rescued that he and other students jumped into the ocean wearing life jackets and then swam to a nearby rescue boat.

"As the ferry was shaking and tilting, we all tripped and bumped into each another," Lim said, adding that some people were bleeding. Once he jumped, the ocean "was so cold. ... I was hurrying, thinking that I wanted to live."

The Yonhap news agency, quoting government officials, said the 6,325-ton Sewol was carrying students from a high school in Ansan, just south of Seoul, when it sent out a distress signal at 8:58 a.m. Wednesday.

Several survivors reported hearing a "loud impact" before the ship started listing and turning on its side, Reuters reports. Officials said it was not immediately clear what caused the vessel to sink.

"There was a bang and then the ship suddenly tilted over," said a 57-year-old survivor, identified only by his surname Yoo, the Yonhap news agency reports. "Downstairs were restaurants, shops and entertainment rooms, and those who were there are feared to have failed to escape."

The overnight ferry from Inchon was 11 hours into a 14-hour trip to the tourist island of Jeju. The ferry, built in 1994, makes the trip twice a week, the Yonhap news agency reports.

Anxious relatives waited at Jindo Port, on the island closest to the sunken ferry, where survivors were brought. 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.

"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. She injured her hand.

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 to the left, said the paper, while those on the right could jump into the sea.

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 and many cars and taxis gathered at the gate as she left in the morning.

Parents clung to cellphones awaiting calls from their children, CNN reported. Officials posted a list of names, which were circled as rescues were confirmed.

In 1993, 292 people died when the Seohae ferry carrying 362 passengers sank off the southwest coast of Jeolla province.

Contributing: Calum MacLeod, in Beijing; Associated Press

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