SEOUL — The captain of a sunken ferry apologized Thursday for the accident that has left nearly 300 passengers missing and a frantic search underway to find survivors.

Meanwhile, a little girl has emerged as a heart-breaking symbol of the tragedy.

Nine bodies have been recovered so far in the disaster that survivors say was made worse by the amount of time it took for an order to evacuate the Sewol after it lurched suddenly to one side Wednesday.

"I am really sorry and deeply ashamed," a man identified by broadcaster YTN and Yonhap news agency as the captain, 60-year-old Lee Joon-seok, said in brief comments shown on TV, his face hidden beneath a gray hoodie. "I don't know what to say."

Divers continued to search the frigid, swift-moving waters Thursday night for the 287 passengers still missing among the 475 people who departed from Incheon, near the capital of Seoul, for the 14-hour trip to Jeju island. The popular tourist destination features volcanic landscapes, beaches, golf courses and casinos.

The search was hampered Thursday by strong currents, rain and bad visibility. Part of the keel of the Sewol remained visible in waters off Mokpo, about 290 miles from Seoul.

Delayed by fog, the captain reportedly steered the Sewol for an alternate course to save time and was three hours from Jeju when passengers heard a loud bang and the ship listed to port, said YTN. The government has not determined the cause of the disaster but media here say officials are looking into whether the ship hit submerged rocks, or changed course so sharply that cargo shifted below and overturned the boat.

On-board safety announcements told passengers to stay where they were inside the boat and put on life jackets to await rescue, say survivors. Soon there were dozens of boats and helicopters on the scene but when the ship began tilting over in its side there was no time for some to escape.

Among those on board was a 5-year-old girl who has become a symbol of the tragedy.

Kyun Ji-Yeon was going to start a new life off the country's south coast. Tired of the urban struggle, her father Kyun Jae-Gyun had loaded a truck with their furniture and possessions to head to Jeju's mild climate. He planned to grow tangerines, one of the island's best-known exports.

The girl was among the survivors. She was taken with others to a Mokpo hospital on the southwestern tip of the Korean Peninsula and did not know where her family was.

She told nurses that her brother, age 6, and her mother, had put a life jacket on her and pushed her up and out of the tilted ferry with the help of other adults, reported SBS television network. Concerned nurses and others who knew she was alone started a social media campaign Wednesday, posting her picture online, to find her family members, reported the Korea Times newspaper.

Celebrities were among the many people who spread the word on social networks about the little girl, including TV host and entertainer Ha Dong-hoon, better known as Haha. They later learned they had the wrong spelling for the girl's name. After correcting it, a cousin of the girl tweeted that an aunt and grandmother had seen Kyun on television and were heading to the hospital.

Kyun showed little emotion in television footage but her aunt said she was showing stress and had thrown up the cookies she had fed her. A passenger surnamed Kim said he was the one who took her in his arms as he climbed up the tilted ship, said the Korea Times.

She was passed between four men before being taken from the ship. There has been no word on whether her father, mother and brother made it off.

Survivors blamed the high number of missing passengers on the ship's crew issuing repeated announcements that passengers should stay put even when the ship began tilting dramatically, said Yonhap.

Video clips taken by survivors revealed that the on-board announcements continued to instruct passengers to stay inside, despite the ferry tilting so far that people could not stand properly, said the Korea Herald.

"Go inside and wait, as the cabin is safer," a ferry staffer said in an announcement recorded on video by a passenger.

Relatives shouted, jostled and threw water bottles at Prime Minister Chung Hong-won when he visited them early Thursday morning at a gymnasium on Jindo Island, where many families of the passengers have gathered.

"How dare you come here with your chin up?" one relative screamed, reported the Korea Herald newspaper. "Would you respond like this if your own child was in that ship?"

One mother stopped Chung from leaving. "Don't run away, Mr. Prime Minister. Please tell us what you're planning to do," she said, according to the Korea Herald.

The 480-foot-long ship was authorized to carry more than 900 people and 180 vehicles, according to Korea news media reports.

"A large hole caused by a submerged rock is the most probable reason why enough water poured into the ferry to cause it to capsize," Chung Yong-hyun, at the Korea Diving Industry Institute, told Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

"We're investigating whether the Sewol struck rocks while going off the course recommended by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries to reach Jeju faster because it was about three hours behind schedule due to fog the previous night," the Ministry of Security and Public Administration told the paper.

Three students and two teachers were among the nine people confirmed dead. A mainland Chinese couple, headed to Jeju with their car, are among the missing, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported Thursday.

The married couple, ethnic Koreans from close to the North Korean border, were a Miss Han, 38, and a Mr Li, 39, reported the Chinese state television channel CCTV.

Some Chinese expressed their sorrow online, and made connections to the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 plane, which had 153 Chinese citizens on board.

"People from countries which have just experienced missing relatives can best understand and sympathize with the mood of South Korean people," wrote Bai Ming, a government economic researcher, on Sina Weibo Thursday. "I wish more people can be rescued."

Hope rose Wednesday that some of the missing passengers may be alive, trapped in an area with an air pocket. The father of one of the missing passengers said he received a text message from his child that said there were still passengers alive on board the boat, Al Jazeera reported.

The text message read, "I am alive, there are students alive, please save us quickly," according to Al Jazeera.

However, the timing of the text messages was not clear. As of Thursday night, the ship has been underwater for more than 24 hours.

"I'm afraid there's little chance for those trapped inside still to be alive," rescue official Cho Yang Bok told YTN television.

South Korea coast guard members search for passengers near the bow of a sunken ferry on April 17 off Byungpoong Island. Rescue teams are continuing their search for 293 passengers missing after the ferry capsized April 16.  (Photo: Ed Jones, AFP/Getty Images)