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Divers risk own lives amid strong currents to save lives

Divers risk own lives amid strong currents to save lives

Posted April. 19, 2014 05:24,   


With rescue efforts to save those who went missing in the sinking of the ferry Sewol entering the fourth day on Friday, concern is mounting over the safety of divers as well. In their desperate endeavor to rescue people believed to be trapped in the ill-fated ship, divers are risking their own lives amid high waves to carry out rescue operations. They also fight diver’s disease that occurs due to gap in atmospheric pressures in the air and water, but equipment to treat their symptom is hardly in sufficient supply.

When this reporter met divers at Paengmok Port in Jindo County, South Jeolla Province on Friday, they unanimously said the accident site offers the worst conditions for them to conduct rescue efforts. They have difficulties even approaching the Sewol due to strong currents and poor underwater visibility. Kim Jin-hak, 50, said, “Due to strong current, it takes about 10 minutes to dive 35 meters deep in the water,” adding, “Since it is a highly dangerous area where even a small mistake can result in serious consequences, even the safety of veteran divers is also a cause of concern.”

Baek Sang-hoon, 50, also said, “I have 30-year experience as diver, but this area is truly difficult to dive due to currents.” According to the West Regional Headquarters of the Korea Coast Guard, a total of 512 professional divers, including 283 from the Coast Guard and 229 from the Navy have been deployed at the accident site, with 297 civilian divers also on standby to assist rescue operation.

In fact, three civilian divers went missing due to high waves before being spotted by other divers some 20 minutes later on Thursday. Ahn gil-pil, who carried out two rescue missions on the day, said, “In fact, we overworked,” adding, “Currently, underwater visibility is so poor that I can hardly see my own hands, while current is extremely strong.”

Kwon Yong, 44, vice chairman of the Ship Salvage Unit (SSU) veterans’ association who participated in rescue mission at the sinking of the naval corvette Cheonan in 2010, said, “The situation here is more challenging than that at the site of the Cheonan incident in Baengnyeong Island.” He went on to say that “if the speed of current is one knot or above, diving is almost impossible, but current with the speeds of four to five knots always flows here except for a quarter of a day. Also, if wind speed is nine to 10 meters or higher, it is unsafe to engage in deep water diving mission due to high waves,” adding, “With sense of desperation to save even just one more life, we are carrying out missions by violating general guidelines.”

Divers are also vulnerable to diver’s disease or decompression sickness. The disease occurs when nitrogen contained in air that the diver breathes is not released to outside the body due to high hydraulic pressure. Due to gap in atmospheric pressure that occurs when the diver who stayed in deep water emerges onto the surface, nitrogen that remained dissolved in the body transforms into vapors and circulates, causing pain. Hong Sang-man, head of the medical service department (neurologist) at the Jeju Medical Center said, “Our body can only work for about 10 minutes without developing diver’s disease at deep water of below 40 meters from the surface.”

Watchers say that "decompression chambers," equipment for treating diver’s disease, are also in short supply. Kwon said, “Due to the large size of the vessel, it takes a long time for divers to enter the ship, and hence when divers emerge they should frequently get treatment, but supply of various equipment and tools is insufficient.” Currently, only four chambers have been deployed at the accident site, including one designed for 19 people (only 10 people can use concurrently because it is undergoing structural repair) at the naval warship Cheonghaejin, one for six people at the warship Pyeongtaek, and one for four people at the Nurian, a underwater excavation ship provided by the National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage.