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Fears rise for lost passengers

BY FOSTER KLUG AND YOUKYUNG LEEAssociated Press

MOKPO, South Korea - Strong currents and bad visibility hampered rescuers today in the search for 287 passengers still missing more than 24 hours after their ferry flipped onto its side and filled with cold water off the southern coast of South Korea, causing fury among families waiting for word of passengers who were mostly high school students.

Nine were confirmed dead, but many expect that number will rise sharply because the missing have now spent more than a day either trapped in the ferry or in the cold seawater.

There were 475 people aboard and frantic parents have gathered at the high school student's school near Seoul and in Mokpo, in the south of the country, not far from where the ferry slipped beneath the surface until only the blue-tipped, forward edge of the keel was visible.

Parents, siblings and other relatives of three high school students killed in the sinking wailed and sobbed as ambulances at a hospital in Mokpo took the students' bodies to the city near Seoul where their high school is located. The families, who spent a mostly sleepless night at the hospital, followed the ambulances in their own cars.

The family of one of the victims, 24-year-old teacher Choi Hye-jung, spoke about a young woman who loved to boast of how her students would come to her office and give her hugs. She loved teaching and loved her students and was excited about her first-ever school trip to Jeju island. There were 325 students on board, headed to Jeju for a four-day trip.

"She was very active and wanted to be a good leader," her father, Choi Jae-kyu, 53, said at Mokpo Jung-Ang Hospital while waiting for the arrival of his daughter's body. Choi's mother, sitting on a bench at the hospital, sobbed quietly with her head bent down on her knee.

Meanwhile, 20 divers tried to get inside the ship's wreckage but couldn't because of the current, the coast guard said. More than 400 rescuers searched nearby waters overnight and into this morning.

The coast guard said it found two more bodies in the sea this morning, pushing the death toll to nine. The two were believed to be men in their 30s and 20s but authorities are trying to confirm their identity, said an official from the coast guard's press team who would not give her name because she did not have permission to speak to the media.

Dozens were injured. Coast guard officials put the number of survivors early today at 179. It was still unknown why the ferry sank, but coast guard officials were interviewing the captain and crew.

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