South Korea's president ordered a military alert Tuesday after the country's defense minister said a North Korean mine may have been to blame for the sinking of one of its warships.
A South Korean diver died today during a tense rescue operation to reach possible survivors trapped underwater in the ship that sank last Friday, officials said. Another diver who lost consciousness has been transferred to USNS Salvor, one of four U.S. Navy ships assisting in the search recovery.
These rescue efforts are underway near Baengnyeong Island, at the western tip of a disputed maritime border between South and North Korea, where a blast ripped a 1,200-ton South Korean ship apart during a patrol mission.
Rough waves and strong underwater currents are hampering expert divers from reaching the two parts of the sunken ship. Fifty-eight crew members, mostly at the front of the ship at the time, were saved but 46 are still unaccounted for.
On Monday divers did manage to reach the back part of the wrecked ship where most of the missing soldiers were positioned at the time of the blast. Aware that the crew would have only enough oxygen in their watertight cabins to last until Monday evening, divers pumped oxygen into the ship through cracks in the stern, Rear Adm. Lee Ki-sik of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
They were diving in extremely difficult conditions. Strong currents churning up dust meant that they were only able to see less than a foot ahead even with a flashlight. The maximum time divers can stay underwater at 160 feet below is only eight minutes per dive.
"There was no response when our military divers knocked on the hull of the ship's rear," said Lee.
President Lee flew to wreckage site Tuesday to review search operations, meet with marines and console family members, the presidential Blue House said in a statement.
Lee told officers South Korea must maintain its military readiness until North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons program.
"When we are strong, we can defend ourselves. If we are weak, we'll face more danger," Lee said. "South Korea's military should be strong."
Four U.S. Navy ships that happened to be in the area to participate in the Foal Eagle Exercise, a joint bilateral annual military training, were quickly deployed to the site last Saturday on the request of the South Korean government.
"We are there to support the Korean navy and will be there for as long as they need us with our mobile diving and salvage unit 1 embarked on the USNS Salvor," Lieutenant Anthony Falvo, deputy public affairs officer for the U.S. 7th Fleet, told ABC News.
A guided missile cruiser USS Shiloh and two destroyers, USS Curtis Wilbur and USS Lassen, are also assisting. "Our team and our divers were involved in salvage operation when the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007. So we are perfectly suited for this kind of operation."
Military experts had told reporters that the chances of finding survivors after 69 hours were extremely slim but the families of the 46 missing soldiers are clinging onto hope, growing more and more anxious and angry at the slow pace of rescue efforts.
"He is not dead. I have a strong feeling that he is there, waiting for help!" whispered one man whose nephew is missing. "We're just all extremely disappointed and annoyed because the government is not moving fast enough and not updating us on what is going on," he said in a low exhausted voice.