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Diver dies at S. Korea ferry disaster site

Published on May 6, 2014 4:30 PM
South Korean divers climb up the ladder after after operating under the water, where the capsized passenger ship Sewol sank, during a search and rescue operation in Jindo on April 29, 2014. A diver died on Tuesday while working at the scene of South Korea’s ferry disaster as investigators disclosed that the ship was routinely overloaded with cargo to make more money. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - A diver died on Tuesday while working at the scene of South Korea’s ferry disaster as investigators disclosed that the ship was routinely overloaded with cargo to make more money.

Lee Gwang-Wook, 53, suffered breathing difficulties after reaching a depth of 25 metres, said coastguard spokesman Ko Myung-Suk.

The 53-year-old, who was making his first dive at the scene, lost consciousness and was pronounced dead in hospital.

Lee lost contact with surface controllers after five minutes in the water.

His air hose was found entangled with other lines, a coastguard official was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency.

He was the first victim among scores of divers engaged in the grim and dangerous task of finding and retrieving bodies from the sunken ship, while fighting strong currents and low visibility in silty water.

Some 10 others have received treatment for exhaustion and decompression sickness since the operation began.

It has been 20 days since the 6,825-tonne Sewol capsized and sank with 476 people on board – most of them schoolchildren – off the southwest coast.

The confirmed death toll stands at 263, while 39 people remain missing.

Yonhap, citing investigators, said on Tuesday the ferry was overloaded on 139 out of its 241 voyages between the western port of Incheon and the southern resort island of Jeju since it began the service in March last year.

When disaster struck it was carrying 3,608 tonnes of cargo including 108 vehicles while the legal limit was 987 tonnes, the news agency quoted investigators as saying.

The ferry was carrying just 580 tonnes of ballast water – only 37 per cent of the legal requirement – in order to carry more cargo. This made the ship dangerously unbalanced, Yonhap said, citing investigators.

President Park Geun-Hye on Tuesday issued a fresh apology for her government’s failure to prevent the tragedy and renewed a pledge to eradicate “corruption and wrongdoing” blamed for the disaster.

“As the president who should protect the lives of the people, I don’t know how to express my condolences to the bereaved families. I feel sorry and my heart is heavy with grief,” she said.

“Greed for material gain prevailed over safety regulations and such irresponsible behaviour resulted in the loss of precious lives.”

Park previously apologised for her government’s failure to combat systemic and regulatory “evils” that may have contributed to the accident and vowed to sternly punish culprits.

The ferry sinking is one of South Korea’s worst peacetime disasters, made all the more shocking by the loss of so many young lives.

Of those on board, 325 were students from the same high school in Ansan city just south of Seoul.

All 15 of the surviving crew including the captain who were responsible for sailing the ferry are in custody, facing charges including negligence and abandoning passengers.

Prosecutors also arrested three officials from the ferry operator – Chonghaejin Marine Co – last week on charges of loading the ferry well beyond its legal limit.

Investigators said on Monday that the crew had failed to alert passengers to the imminent danger for 40 minutes after sending distress signals.

They became the first to leave the ship aboard a rescue boat, leaving hundreds of passengers trapped inside the sinking ship.

Criticism has also been directed at the government, as more evidence emerges of lax safety standards and possible corruption among regulators.

The independent Hankyoreh Shinmun daily said enforcement of safety regulations remained lax despite earlier incidents. In 1993, 292 passengers perished when an overloaded ferry sank off the west coast.