SEOUL – A civilian diver involved in searches for dozens of missing people from the South Korean ferry disaster died Tuesday as other divers helped by better weather and easing ocean currents were picking up efforts to retrieve more bodies from the sunken ship.
The Sewol carried 476 people, most of them students from a single high school near Seoul, when it sank off South Korea’s southern coast on April 16. Only 174 survived, including 22 of the 29 crew members. The sinking left more than 260 people dead, with about 40 others still missing.
On Tuesday, one civilian diver died at a hospital after becoming unconscious, government task force spokesman Ko Myung-seok said in a statement. He is the first fatality among divers mobilized following the ferry’s sinking, according to the coast guard.
The 53-year-old diver was pulled to the surface by fellow divers after losing communication about five minutes after he began underwater searches, Ko said. It was his first search attempt, Ko added.
Despite his death, divers were continuing their searches Tuesday, with authorities believing most of the remaining missing people are in 64 of the ship’s 111 areas. Ko said divers have searched all those 64 areas at least once and plan to revisit them again to look for more victims.
Darkness, floating debris and the maze of corridors and cabins onboard have made the search difficult, and divers entered the last three unopened areas on Monday night, Ko said.
Investigators have also made their first arrests of people who were not on board the Sewol when it sank. The three people arrested on Friday and Sunday are suspected of negligence in their handling of cargo on the vessel, according to prosecutors.
In all, 19 people have been arrested in the investigation, 15 of them crew members accused of abandoning passengers. An executive with ties to Chonghaejin, the company that owns the ferry, was detained on suspicion of malpractice related to company finances.
Improper stowage and overloading of cargo is suspected as a possible reason the ferry sank. The ferry was carrying an estimated 3,608 tons of cargo, more than three times what it could safely carry. A ferry loaded too heavily could lose its balance making even a small turn.
The sinking has caused a national grief. As of Sunday, 1.1 million people had paid respects at 131 memorial altars around the nation, according to a governmental funeral support committee set up for the ferry victims. Tuesday was a national holiday in South Korea for Buddha’s birthday, and more people were expected to visit those mourning stations.
Monday was also a holiday for Children’s Day, but various events were canceled or postponed because of the ferry’s sinking. The Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, run by the Seoul city office, canceled a handful of outdoor events and music festivals on the holiday.