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A British ferry struck a sea wall and capsized...

ZEEBRUGGE, Belgium -- A British ferry struck a sea wall and capsized Friday night while sailing from port with 620 people aboard, killing at least 20 and leaving 224 missing and feared dead in the icy North Sea.

A fleet of rescue ships and helicopters plucked 310 people to safety, and divers searched for survivors trapped inside the hull of the Herald of Free Enterprise.

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Belgium Transport Minister Herman De Croo said 224 people were believed trapped in the vessel and there was little hope they still could be saved.

'I am afraid they will all be dead,' he said. 'Maybe a few can still be live, as we hope there are some air pockets in the hull.'

Divers spotted some passengers through portholes shortly after the sinking, but the coordinator of the rescue attempt, Commander Jaques Thas, said hopes of saving their lives were 'shrinking all the time.'

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A team of 21 British divers arrived to cut holes into the hull of the ferry so that underwater cameras could peer inside in the search for survivors, rescue officials said.

Witnesses said they saw dozens of bodies floating in the freezing waters around the ferry about 1 mile off the coast. Prime Minister Wilfred Maertens said 20 bodies had been recovered and 97 of those rescued were hospitalized.

The Independent Radio News network in Britian called the sinking the worst peacetime disaster in the the English Channel.

Rescue officials said the West German-built ferry had just left for Dover, England, when it struck a seawall that extends 3 miles into the water, then capsized in calm seas about 7:40 p.m. The 435-foot ferry was lying on its side about three-quarters below the water's surface.

The ferry owners speculated that a bow door burst open on impact, sending water cascading onto the vessel, which also was carrying passengers' autos.

The provincial government in West Flanders said the ferry carried a crew of 60 and 560 passengers. Aboard were West Germans, Belgians and many Britons, including servicemen and workers returning home from jobs in other European nations.

'There is a small possibility that there are some survivors still in the hull,' a Belgian Radio reporter on the scene said. 'It depends on how many airpockets there may be. Helicopters are hovering over the area. But gradually the hope to find more survivors is dwindling.'

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'People thrown into the water have been dead for a long time,' the reporter said. 'In this temperature, they cannot survive for long.'

Some survivors reached the shore in lifeboats, port officials said. Others were taken to a beach at the coastal village of Heist. Hospitals along the coast reported some seriously injured people, officials said.

'It's panic and confusion everywhere,' said Capt. William Budd of the vessel Tayman, one of dozens that rushed to help the ferry outside the port 50 miles northwest of Brussels.

A survivor, Rosina Sommerfield of London, said she and her son were in the cafeteria of the ferry when it began to sink.

'It was dark. The lights went out and all we could hear was glass smashing and water running,' said the woman, who was rescued 20 minutes later by a trawler. 'Everybody just scrambled. This ain't the Titanic, you know.'

The Dutch news agency ANP said some victims clambered onto the hull of the overturned ferry to await rescue. Some of the victims were picked up by helicopters that lifted them from the waters, which were about 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

'The water just came in and it was terrifying,' Sommerfield said. 'There were petrol fumes and everything from all the cars. They (rescuers) smashed the windows and put ladders down to us. People were screaming and shouting ... '

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Budd said many of the survivors were 'wet and shocked.' As people were brought ashore, they were met by Belgian Red Cross workers who gave them blankets and arranged bus transportation to hospitals and hotels.

Because of cold weather, many of the passengers were believed to have been inside the vessel when it sank.

The Zeebrugge harbormaster said the vessel did not send an SOS call, but French rescue officials on the Normandy Coast reported a distress call to other boats in the area for immediate assistance.

The ferry, based in Dover, was 7 years old and owned by Townsend Thoresen Lines. In addition to passengers and cars, the vessel was designed to transport large trucks and freight.

Helicopters and more than 30 vessels responded to the call for help, including the entire fishing fleet of Zeebrugge, several tug boats and salvage vessels with divers aboard. A French coast guard minesweeper, the Capricorn, and several British naval vessels were also ordered to the scene.

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