Jindo: The parents waited in dread through the night, huddled under blankets, staring out to sea for a sign that rescuers had found any of the 281 people, many of them high school students, still missing after a ferry sank on Wednesday.

They refused to sleep in a tent set up for them, preferring to scan the horizon for helicopters.

As the hours passed with little news of what may be one of South Korea’s worst peacetime disasters, they demanded information from officials who said that fierce tides were keeping divers from entering the ship.

“Why are you not going in to save them?” one woman screamed.

Another, Chung Hae-sook, echoed her rage. “There is no tomorrow for this,” she said. “My heart is turning to ashes.”

South Korea has not had a major ferry accident in two decades. Of about 450 passengers on board the ferry when it set sail from the port of Incheon late on Tuesday, 175 have been rescued and nine confirmed dead, including four 17-year-old students, two teachers and a member of the ferry’s crew. But fears of a much higher toll were stoked as survivors said they believed that many people had been trapped below deck.

Nearly 340 of the passengers were teenagers and teachers from the same school near the capital Seoul on a field trip to Jeju island, about 100 kilometres south of the Korean Peninsula.

One of the students who made it out, Kim Tae-young, said he had seen people in the ferry’s cafeteria and in a game room on a level below him before the ship started listing.

“The water rushed in, up to my neck, and it was difficult to climb to the top of the boat because it was badly tilted,” he said. “I saw shipping containers tossed off the ship’s deck and floating in the water. I also saw a vending machine toppled and two girls trapped under it.”

Some sent frantic text messages to their loved ones. “Dad, I can’t walk out,” one 18-year-old wrote, according to MBC, a South Korean news outlet. “The corridor is full of kids, and it’s too tilted.”

“The ferry was shaken very hard,” said another student, Lim Hyeong-min. “The height from the ferry to the water was lower than a one-storey building. Rescue boats were right near, so I swam to one boat. The water was so cold.”

As coastguard officials arrived at Jindo on Thursday, waiting relatives jeered at them, shouting: “The weather’s nice, why aren’t you starting the rescue.”

It is not known why the 6586-tonne vessel, built in Japan 20 years ago, sank. But the captain, Lee Joon-seok, who is being questioned by investigators, insisted it had not run aground. “It didn’t hit any rocks,” the 60-year-old told the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper. “The ship just sank suddenly. I don’t know a clear reason.” South Korean President Park Geun-hye voiced shock and pain at the “tragic” accident.

“Please do not give up until the very last moment,” she said during a visit to the national disaster agency’s situation room in Seoul late on Wednesday.

Ms Chung’s younger brother said he was “ashamed” of the government for not doing more. “How can we trust them?” he said.

“It feels like the divers are not going into the water lest they die.”

Ms Chung said her 16-year-old son, Park Sung-ho, had sent her a text message saying the ferry might not leave the dock but later messaged her that it was departing and that he would return safely.

“I feel like the parents, including myself, are here waiting for our children to die.” she said.

New York Times and agencies

Fury and despair for Korean parents