SEOUL — Two U.S. Navy helicopters began assisting Thursday morning in the search for survivors of a ferry that sank off the southwestern tip of South Korea a day earlier.
Almost 290 people, many of them high school students on a school trip to a popular resort island, remain missing. Nine people are confirmed dead, according to media reports.
Lt. Arlo Abrahamson, spokesman for Commander, Naval Forces Korea, said two MH-60 helicopters operating off the USS Bonhomme Richard are searching an area about five to 15 nautical miles, or 6 to 17 miles, from the disaster site at the request of the South Korean commander directing the search. He did not know why they had been asked to search that area.
Abrahamson said he did not know whether other U.S. military assets would be called to assist in the search.
Approximately 3,000 sailors and Marines are aboard the Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship that also carries MV-22 Ospreys. The ship is now about 20 to 25 nautical miles, or 23 to 29 miles, from the wreckage of the Sewol, the 6,325-ton ferry that was en route to Jeju Island when it sent out a distress signal shortly before 9 a.m. Wednesday.
The Bonhomme Richard had finished taking part in a large-scale U.S.-South Korean amphibious landing operation earlier this month and was conducting routine operations in waters west of the Korean peninsula Wednesday when it received a request to provide assistance.
"It was just past noon today (Wednesday) when we received the call to assist and we immediately altered course toward the site of the sinking vessel and came up to “All Ahead Flank”, our highest possible speed," read a post attributed to Capt. Joey "JT" Tynch, the commanding officer of the Bonhomme Richard, on the ship's Facebook page. "The thoughts and prayers of all of us aboard BHR are with the passengers and crew of the Korean ferry Sewol and their families," the message said.
Two MH-60s equipped with lifeboats were initially dispatched to the disaster site but were recalled.
High currents and worsening weather are expected to make search and rescue operations more difficult Thursday.
“The U.S. Navy is standing by and ready to assist as requested by our Korean partners,” Abrahamson said. “We continue to keep in close contact with the on-scene commander.”