South Korea ferry search diver dies during hunt for bodies in Sewol wreckage

The 53-year-old, identified only as Mr Lee, was pulled to surface but later died in hospital

A civilian diver helping search for bodies in the sunken South Korean ferry has died after falling unconscious underwater, officials said.

It is the first fatality among divers who have to negotiate strong currents, challenging weather conditions and a maze of dark narrow passages in their hunt for those missing aboard the Sewol ferry.

Identified only by his surname Lee, the 53-year-old man was a veteran crew member of the private company Undine Marine Industries, according to the South Korean state news agency Yonhap.

Officials said he was just five minutes into his first dive at the 25m-deep wreck when he lost consciousness in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Other divers pulled him to the surface, but he later died in hospital.

The death has prompted South Korea’s prime minister Chung Hong-won to order thorough health checks of all divers involved in the search, but it has not stopped dives going ahead.

Investigators say around 40 people are still listed as missing from the ferry that was carrying 476 when it sank, mostly students from the same high school near Seoul, on 16 April. More than 260 people have died, including 7 of the 29 crew members.

The ship has been broken down into 111 areas for the purposes of the search effort, and last night divers entered the final three that had remained unchecked. Officials now say they have identified 64 areas which, though they have already been searched at least once, may still contain bodies.

Containing the search to the wreck itself has been a challenge for investigators, and a net has been put up around the Sewol to prevent bodies from floating away. Around 41 of the bodies found so far were floating in the sea, while mattresses and other debris from the ferry have been spotted up to 9 miles (15km) away.

Meanwhile, 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 were 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 ship was carrying an estimated 3,608 tons of cargo – more than three times the safe limit. A ferry loaded too heavily could lose its balance making even a small turn.

As of Sunday, more than one million people had paid respects at 131 memorial altars around the nation, according to a government official. Today is a national holiday in South Korea for Buddha's birthday, and more people are expected to make visits marking the event.