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Theories on how a South Korean passenger ferry suddenly sank

By Josh Levs, CNN
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
South Korean President Park Geun-hye weeps while delivering a speech to the nation about the sunken ferry Sewol at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday, May 19. More than 200 bodies have been found and nearly 100 people remain missing after the ferry sank April 16 off South Korea's southwest coast. South Korean President Park Geun-hye weeps while delivering a speech to the nation about the sunken ferry Sewol at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday, May 19. More than 200 bodies have been found and nearly 100 people remain missing after the ferry sank April 16 off South Korea's southwest coast.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • South Korean oceans ministry: The ship did not deviate much from its intended route
  • Some passengers reported hearing a bang before the ship sank
  • The ship had traveled through fog, but conditions were clear at the time of the accident
  • The most immediate danger to passengers is hypothermia

(CNN) -- As divers searched frigid waters off South Korea in low visibility, hoping to save hundreds of passengers, a dominant theory began to emerge about how the ferry sank.

It most likely struck something in the water, said Peter Boynton, a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain.

"The speed with which this ferry began to list and then roll over on its side suggests significant damage, most likely causing major flooding that would cause a vessel of this size -- almost 500 feet long -- to quickly roll onto its side. That's very likely the result of significant damage," he said.

Some passengers reported hearing a loud bang before the ship began sinking. That could be from cargo shifting or "some other internal damage," Boynton told CNN's "New Day." "But it does sound, from initial reports, it was more likely that something was struck."

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Approximate location

When the ship left Seoul, it traveled through fog, which may have put it off course, said Mary Schiavo, former inspector general for the Department of Transportation.

"So if they hit something, that would have meant they were out of the channel, which is quite easy to do," Schiavo said.

'We are not dead yet' passengers texted

But the South Korean Oceans and Fisheries Ministry said Thursday that the ferry did not deviate significantly from its intended route.

The agency approved the ferry's intended route, and "there was no huge difference between their plan and the actual track chart," spokesman Nam Jae Heon said.

Schiavo said other possibilities include engine failure or an explosion, particularly in the engine room.

"But that probably alone wouldn't account for the sinking this quickly. It probably was something else that happened," she said.

Making matters worse, the ferry carried dozens of vehicles. Once an auto deck is breached, "it's typically open to very significant flooding," Boynton said. That could explain "why the ferry in just a matter of hours began to roll onto its side so quickly."

Coast guard and navy ships, as well as fishing boats, rushed into the area.

The challenge ahead

For rescue divers, a combination of factors makes saving people especially difficult: very cold waters, strong currents and low visibility, made worse by nightfall. "The underwater challenges are very, very significant and pose, I would think, tremendous risk for the people who I'm sure are doing their best to help," Boynton said.

For the passengers, the most immediate danger is the cold.

"Pretty much everyone we saw was wearing a life jacket," journalist Andrew Salmon reported on CNN International. "So the concern is hypothermia. If you're not picked up within two hours, you're in significant danger -- your body core goes cold."

Can they survive in air pockets?

Some of the rescued passengers report that when the ship began to sink, they were told to jump into the water immediately -- and not to take time to get into life boats. Sometimes after a breach, as the water begins gushing in, "there's a sucking, there's a motion, that just makes it impossible to fight," Schiavo said.

"So the order to abandon ship might have indicated that. ... It's almost like a suction that occurs when the water starts coming on, and you can't fight it."

But other passengers said they were told to stay on the ship. Sometimes, "conflicting commands" are given, Schiavo said. "There can be a lot of confusion in an event like this."

READ: Rescuers search dark, cold sea for survivors of shipwreck off South Korea

READ: Survivors tell of panic on board as ferry tilts, then capsizes

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