Veteran rescue diver dies at S Korea Sewol ferry disaster site

May 07, 2014 - 12:00:00 am

SEOUL: A diver died yesterday while working at the scene of South Korea’s ferry disaster, as investigators disclosed that the ship was carrying nearly four times its legal limit of cargo.

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

Gwang-Wook, 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 a veteran diver, who used to work up to 60 metres below the surface,” his brother-in-law Kim Hyun-Chul said, adding Lee had no health problems.

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. 

Ten 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 rose to 264 yesterday, while 38 people remain missing. 

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

When disaster struck it was carrying 3,608 tonnes of cargo , more than half its own weight, including 108 vehicles, the news agency quoted investigators as saying. The legal limit, according to Yonhap, was 987 tonnes.

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

President Park Geun-Hye yesterday issued an 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,” she added.                 AFP