Search halted for missing South Koreans
SEOUL — Rough seas Wednesday forced South Korea to suspend its search for 46 crewmembers missing after one of its patrol ships exploded near the North Korean border, and conditions are expected to remain the same through Thursday, officials said.
A U.S. Navy underwater explosive ordnance disposal team is expected to arrive Friday and explore the wreckage to ensure it is safe to search for the missing sailors and begin salvage efforts.
"Unfortunately, it’s a waiting game on Mother Nature," said Lt. Anthony Falvo, spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, which sent four ships and a 16-member rescue-and-salvage dive team to the site to assist their South Korean counterparts.
The cause of the explosion, which tore the 1,200-ton Cheonan in half, is still under investigation. South Korea and the U.S. said they have no indication that North Korea was involved, but Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said Monday that North Korea might have dispatched a mine that caused the ship to sink, according to The Associated Press.
A South Korean spokesman for the Combined Forces Command, the U.S.-South Korean warfighting headquarters, said Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1, a U.S. Navy dive team from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, has remained aboard ship because a combination of bad weather and strong tides, waves and wind had created the "worst" conditions for divers.
He said the U.S. divers follow regulations that require certain minimal conditions for them to work underwater. South Korea has the same regulations, he said, but all its divers had volunteered to go into the water to search for the missing South Korean sailors.
"It is because we are so desperate to save one possible soul who is still alive, even though it may put our divers’ lives at risk," he said.
The difficulty of the rescue operation was highlighted by the death Tuesday afternoon of a South Korean navy SEAL with more than 30 years of diving experience. Warrant Officer Han Ju-ho, 53, was pronounced dead around 3:30 p.m. aboard the USNS Salvor, a Hawaii-based rescue-and-salvage ship, after losing consciousness underwater.
Han, a member of an underwater demolition team, had no pulse when he arrived and was initially treated by a U.S. Navy corpsman and then by three South Korean navy doctors, Falvo said.
A second South Korean diver also was injured, but was taken to a South Korean ship for treatment. Han, who was to retire in the fall, was treated aboard the Salvor because his injuries were more serious, the CFC spokesman said.
Due to poor sea conditions, the 16-member Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1 had to abandon plans Wednesday to send a sonar probe into the water to ensure ordnance inside the ship was stable and that conditions were safe for diving.
The seven-member EOD Mobile Unit 5 team will do that when it arrives Friday, Falvo said.
"We just want to make sure that conditions are absolutely, 100 percent safe before going into the water," he said. "There are certain procedures that have to be followed before the type of diving they do."
Twenty South Korean ships and 160 South Korean divers are participating in the search-and-rescue effort, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. A CFC spokesman said some private divers volunteered earlier for the mission but left because of dangerous conditions.
Other U.S. Navy ships at the site are the cruiser USS Shiloh and guided-missile destroyers USS Curtis Wilbur and USS Lassen, all forward-deployed from Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. The Wilbur is providing command and control for U.S. efforts during the mission, and the Shiloh and Lassen are delivering air control assistance.