SEOUL — Despite strong currents, South Korea resumed rescue operations Friday for the 46 sailors missing after their ship sank a week earlier, according to South Korean defense officials.
The oxygen supply inside the Cheonan was expected to last 69 hours, meaning air would have run out on Monday, but divers have pumped air into a crack on the stern of the ship, according to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A JCS spokesman said officials hope there may be been enough air and food for at least a few crew members to survive. A spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense also said there is still hope survivors might be found.
The MND spokesman said the divers were entering the Yellow Sea waters despite dangerous conditions in hopes of finding survivors and easing the grief of their family members. One diver died and another was injured earlier last week when they went into the rough seas.
“We cannot sit and look out at the water doing nothing,” the spokesman said.
The MND on Friday said it has all but ruled out an internal explosion on the Cheonan based on testimony from survivors who said they didn’t smell ammunition, see soot marks or receive burns, the spokesman said. Investigators are continuing to look at all possible external causes, such as a mine or torpedo and whether any explosive might have been North Korean or a case of friendly fire, the spokesman said.
The 1,200-ton South Korean ship exploded and sank March 26 near South Korea’s maritime border with North Korea.
The U.S. Navy’s 16-member Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1 kept its medical team in a small boat near the South Korean divers Friday to offer Korean divers assistance if needed, said 7th Fleet spokesman Lt. Anthony Falvo.
Both countries follow regulations that require minimal conditions for them to work underwater, and U.S. rescue divers have not entered the water due to the strong currents. The MND spokesman said South Korean divers were entering the water voluntarily, and the normal regulations about diving conditions were not being followed due to the urgency of the situation.
An underwater explosive ordnance disposal team — the seven-member Mobile Unit 5 from Sasebo Naval Base, Japan — arrived at the site Friday and would dive from the USNS Salvor, a rescue and salvage ship, to ensure munitions on the Cheonan are stable and conditions are safe for rescue divers, Falvo said.
The USS Harpers Ferry, a dock landing ship, arrived from Sasebo on Thursday night, with capabilities that include a 30-ton crane, larger landing deck for helicopters, two MH-60 helicopters, a float-forward staging base, more hospital beds, and a landing craft unit for transferring heavy equipment between ships and shore.
One of the four U.S. ships initially sent to the wreckage site, the USS Shiloh, departed Friday.
“As we determine the level of capability and response needed, we will continue to shape our forces,” Falvo said.