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South Korea diver dies hunting for survivors of naval disaster

One diver perishes and another is hospitalized after losing consciousness during the search for 46 missing crewmen from the navy ship that sank after a mysterious explosion last week.

March 31, 2010|By John M. Glionna and Ju-min Park

Reporting from Seoul — One South Korean diver died and another was hospitalized as rescuers Wednesday continued to search for survivors of last week's mysterious naval ship sinking, attempting three times to enter the hull of the sunken patrol vessel.

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said a 53-year-old diver perished after losing consciousness 80 feet down in the turbulent water of the Yellow Sea. It was not clear whether the accident took place inside the downed ship.

Another diver was injured after he too lost consciousness in the murky depths. He was pulled out in time and taken to a hospital, officials said.

As South Korea entered its fifth day of searching for answers as to why the 1,200-ton combat corvette Cheonan vanished beneath the tense maritime border between the two Koreas late Friday, President Lee Myung-bak visited a waiting area near the site to try to comfort families of 46 crewmen still missing in one of the nation's worst naval disasters.

The boat broke in two after a mysterious explosion shattered its hull, officials said. Fifty-eight of the 104 crew members, including the captain, survived.

As hours ticked by, the nation came closer to presuming the men dead; even if they were in a watertight cabin the oxygen would have run out by now, officials said.

As the president placed the military on alert, government officials mapped out several possible causes for the disaster. High on the list was the possibility that the ship struck a North Korean mine remaining from the Korean War half a century ago.

North Korea has not yet specifically mentioned the incident, but it reacted angrily to any suggestion that it might have been behind the disaster.

The United States has downplayed the possibility of North Korean involvement.

While waiting for word on the fate of his missing nephew, Huh Bok-soo said the families were losing faith in the military. Some family members tried to physically attack the captain of the sunken ship after a weekend news conference.

"Generals are just staring at this like bystanders. They keep saying, 'Don't know,' " Huh said. "They are irresponsible. The president has asked them to be transparent. But, whatever the president said, the people involved are doing nothing.

"And now the families of 46 missing crewmen, including me, only have murderous looks in our eyes."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Park is a researcher in The Times' Seoul Bureau.

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