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Anguish over South Korean ferry sinking amplified by misinformation

By Holly Yan and Stella Kim, CNN
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
  • Early reports said all the students on board were rescued
  • In reality, many of them remain missing, presumably still on the sunken ship
  • Some families' hopes were raised by messages allegedly sent from survivors
  • But police said such messages were hoaxes and vowed to go after those responsible

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- First they said all passengers from the sunken South Korean ferry were rescued. Then they backtracked.

Next they said the ship didn't deviate from its intended course. Then they said it did.

In this tragedy, officials can't seem to get their stories straight. And the media isn't helping by reporting the mixed messages.

With at least 28 people dead and hundreds still missing from the unexplained disaster, here's how the misinformation has only fueled frustrations:

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Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300. Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300.
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The rescue of the students

Soon after the ferry began to sink Wednesday, some local media reported that all students aboard the ship have been saved. Of the 475 people on board, more than 300 were high school students headed to a field trip on the island of Jeju.

The South Korean coast guard initially told CNN in that 368 people had been rescued, and two people were found dead.

But the reality turned out to be far more dire. As of Friday morning, only 179 people had been rescued, YTN and CNN affiliate JTBC said. At least 28 people were dead, and about 270 remained missing.

The ship veering off course

In the hours after the sinking, several analysts speculated the ferry may have veered off course and struck an object.

But the South Korean Oceans and Fisheries Ministry said Thursday that it had approved the boat's intended route, and the actual course did not deviate significantly.

Yet later, Kim Soo Hyeon, the chief of South Korea's Yellow Sea Maritime Police Agency said it appears the ship did deviate from its planned route but did not appear it hit a rock.

The text messages from passengers

Hopes soared for some family members after word spread about social media messages allegedly posted from survivors.

Messages such as "I am still alive... in the cafeteria please help me my battery is running out please believe me," and "My phone is not working I am inside the boat I can't see anything" spread on social media on Thursday -- as late as over 24 hours after the incident.

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News and rumors of texts circulated around families of the missing. The purported texts contained so much detail, they made relatives "surprised and excited," one mother said earlier this week.

But in a cruel twist, police said such messages were actually hoaxes.

This one, however, was not the fault of officials. The messages were reported by local media outlets.

"An investigation from the Police Cyber Terror Response Center verified that all texts in question (from passengers still within the ship) are fake," South Korea police posted on its official Twitter account.

"We will investigate people sending out these messages," said Lee Sung Yoon, head of the combined police and prosecution team.

He said authorities will go after those behind the hoaxes and will "punish them severely."

READ: How likely is it there are still survivors?

READ: Fake survivor posts add to nation's anguish

READ: Seaborne cranes called in as relatives fear end to ferry rescue operation

CNN's Stella Kim reported from Seoul, and Holly Yan wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Frances Cha and Euan McKirdy also contributed to this report.

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