The death toll is expected to far exceed nine because at least 287 passengers are missing more than 24 hours after the vessel flipped on its side and took on water. Dozens were injured.
More than 400 rescuers searched nearby waters overnight and into Thursday morning. Poor visibility and strong currents are hampering the effort. The coast guard says currents have prevented drivers from getting into the wreckage.
Many of the passengers were high school students on an overnight trip to a tourist island.
Divers, helicopters and boats are searching for possible survivors. We still don't know why the ferry sank. The Coast Guard is interviewing the captain and crew.
One person who escaped says that as the ferry filled with water and started listing on its side. The crew told passengers to stay put and wait for rescuers.
Another survivor says he's sure many people were trapped inside, unable to reach the exits.
"We were told to stay where you are, so we kept staying," survivor Hyun Hung Chang said. "But later on the water level came up, so we were beside ourselves. Kids were screaming out of terror, shouting for help."
"So I was staying put, but suddenly the water came up to my face, so I think it was a narrow escape from dying," survivor Ji Chul Song said.
Back in South Korea, distraught parents gathered at schools and shelters, anxiously waiting for news of their loved ones. There have been some emotional reunions between survivors and their loved ones.
The Korea Times transcribed a call one high school student made to his father.
The student said, "Dad, ship is about to sink, I'm lying down on bed with life jacket on, what am I going to do?"
His dad responded, "Give up all the stuff and grab a pole or something and hold on to it."
The boy cried and responded, "I will see you alive."
That was the last response from him.
Some parents received texts from their children.
One girl wrote, "Dad, I can't walk out. The corridor is full of kids, and it's too tilted."
Another student sent a text that read, "Mom, I might not be able to tell you in person. I love you." The mother replied, "Me too, son. I love you."
Families expressed frustration about the lack of information. Others scanned a handwritten list of those who survived
Some relatives of passengers who were on the ill-fated boat boarded another ferry to get to the area where the rescue mission is taking place.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)