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(3rd LD) Search for sunken ferry continues despite diver's death

2014/05/06 19:53

JINDO, South Korea, May 6 (Yonhap) -- Despite the death of one of their fellow workers on a pre-dawn mission, divers continued their search Tuesday for 35 people still missing in the sinking of a ferry 21 days ago.

The 6,825-ton ferry, the Sewol, plying between Incheon, west of Seoul, and the southern resort island of Jeju, sank in waters off South Korea's southwestern island of Jindo on April 16. Of the 476 people on board, 267 have been confirmed dead, with 174 others rescued on the day of the tragedy.

A father puts a shoe in a nearby port in South Korea's southern island of Jindo on May 6, 2014, for his child who remains missing in the sinking of the ferry Sewol, leaving a message that read, "Dear my last baby, your friend bought pretty new shoes. Mom, sister, and brother all miss you. We are waiting for you." (Yonhap)

A father puts a shoe in a nearby port in South Korea's southern island of Jindo on May 6, 2014, for his child who remains missing in the sinking of the ferry Sewol, leaving a message that read, "Dear my last baby, your friend bought pretty new shoes. Mom, sister, and brother all miss you. We are waiting for you." (Yonhap)

As Coast Guard, Navy and civilian divers braved the harsh weather to carry out the grim task of retrieving bodies in the last three weeks, they have increasingly been suffering from exhaustion, with some of them treated for decompression sickness and other injuries.

On Tuesday, a 53-year-old civilian worker named Lee Kwang-wook fell unconscious shortly after diving into waters around 25 meters deep at 6:05 a.m.

The veteran diver from Undine Marine Industries was sent to a nearby hospital at around 7:12 a.m., but he was pronounced dead soon afterwrds. Lee is the first diver to be killed during the search mission, though the cause of his death is currently under investigation.

Undine Marine Industries is a private company specializing in offshore and subsea engineering as well as maritime rescue and salvage work.

Following the incident, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won ordered a thorough check on the health of divers, his office said.

Both ruling and opposition parties expressed regret over the diver's death, urging the government to pay more attention to the safety of rescue workers to prevent more victims.

The working conditions are tough as divers have to swim in cold, dark waters for extended stretches under pressure from grieving families to retrieve bodies early from the upturned ship lying on the muddy sea bed about 40 meters deep.

Conditions are even harsher for civilian workers who are staying aboard a barge operated by Undine, while Coast Guard and Navy divers have been on standby in their boats and rescue ships equipped with medical facilities and equipment.

Later in the day, the government emergency team decided to send medical staff to the civilian barge to conduct medical tests on workers.

"The team will send military doctors and doctors belonging to the Ministry of Health and Welfare to the barge to closely check divers' blood pressure and pulses before they enter waters," Ko Myung-seok, the spokesman for the government emergency response team, said in a briefing.

Last week, a 31-year-old civilian diver fell unconscious after diving four times before daybreak to set guideline ropes around the ship, while more than a dozen divers were treated at hyperbaric oxygen therapy centers, according to officials.

Decompression sickness is a painful and potentially dangerous that strikes deep sea divers who surface too quickly or stay in cold waters for a long time, causing paralysis, vomiting, and aching pains in joints, the ears and other parts of the body.

The search effort was briefly suspended following Lee's death, but the rescue team proceeded with the operation as the weather turned favorable in the region in the afternoon.

The rescue crews navigated through the lobby, stairs, toilets and snack bars, and revisited the cabins they had already searched to find those still missing. A total of 128 divers were ready to search cabins where missing passengers are believed to be trapped inside, the government team said.

Families have raised concerns that rescue workers may not be able to retrieve all bodies from the ill-fated ship as several bodies have recently been found in waters far away from the disaster site.

Workers in fishing boats increased the amount of netting around the scene as some 750 pieces of lost articles, such as bags and slippers, have been collected in nearby seas.

Officials expected the search operations to go "without a major hitch" this week, as weather conditions are forecast to be "the best since the tragic accident took place."

   "It will be sunny and waves are to be low. The maximum speed of the underwater currents in the shipwreck site is forecast to be some half of that during the peak term last week," a weather agency official said.

Citizens throng a joint altar in the Seoul Plaza, central Seoul, on May 6, 2014 to pay tributes to the deceased in the tragic sinking of the ferry Sewol last month that left 302 people dead or missing. (Yonhap)

Citizens throng a joint altar in the Seoul Plaza, central Seoul, on May 6, 2014 to pay tributes to the deceased in the tragic sinking of the ferry Sewol last month that left 302 people dead or missing. (Yonhap)

Nationwide, tens of thousands of mourners opted to pay tribute to the victims over going on a picnic on the holiday for Buddha's birthday.

Some 15,000 grim-faced people lined up to say goodbye and sorry to the victims at the official joint memorial center set up in Ansan, a city just south of Seoul, which is home to Danwon High School which lost hundreds of students in the disaster.

More than 416,000 people have visited the memorial altar in Ansan so far, according to government officials.

In Seoul, a steady stream of people also laid flowers and left messages for the victims on yellow ribbons which symbolize desperate hope for safe return of those missing. Over the past 10 days, more than 173,000 people have visited the Seoul altar.

Meanwhile, prosecutors widened their probe to find out the cause of the ferry's sinking and other regulatory failures.

On Tuesday, a joint investigation team said the ferry was found to have routinely overloaded with cargo to increase profits since it was first put into service on the Incheon-Jeju route in March 2013.

Out of 241 voyages, the ferry was overloaded 139 times, making 2.9 billion won (US$2.8 million) in excessive revenue, officials said.

On the day of the sinking, the Sewol carried 3,608 tons of cargo, including 108 vehicles, which is three times heavier than the standard for the ship. Officials suspect the containers came loose after the ship made one last fatal turn before it began sharply tilting and sank.

Separately, authorities have been on an intensive probe into Yoo Byung-eun, a former chief of Semo Marine Co., the predecessor of the operator of the Sewol, along with his family and close aides, over irregularities, including the creation of a slush fund, embezzlement, dereliction of duty and tax evasion.

The Incheon District Prosecutors Office Tuesday sought arrest warrants for Lee Jae-young, the chief of Ahae Corp., a paint manufacturing company, on suspicion of breaching his duty by supporting Yoo's activities as a photographer and by lending corporate fund illegally to his family. Ahae is Yoo's artistic alter ego who rarely appeared in public.

Lee allegedly played a key role in purchasing Yoo's works, paying 100 million won for eight photos, and paid a lot to a paper company owned by Yoo's family for consulting services.

The investigators said it is also considering asking for help from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to summon one of Yoo's sons currently staying in the U.S. The junior Yoo is suspected of keeping the bulk of the suspected slush funds in overseas accounts.

ejkim@yna.co.kr

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