South Korean diver dies during rescue effort
SEOUL — A South Korean diver lost consciousness underwater and died Tuesday while looking for survivors of a South Korean navy ship that sank Friday, according to the Ministry of National Defense.
A second diver also lost consciousness during the operation and is being treated, a spokesman said. None of the 46 missing crew members of the Cheonan have been found following an explosion that government officials said may have been caused by North Korea.
President Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday put South Korean troops on the second-highest level of military alert, defense officials confirmed. On Monday, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said North Korea might have dispatched a mine that caused the 1,200-ton ship to sink near the maritime border between the Koreas, according to The Associated Press.
Both South Korea and the U.S. said they have no indication that North Korea was involved in the explosion, and a spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense said Tuesday that the government has not ruled out any possible causes, including a North Korean mine, engine flaws or an ammunition explosion.
The spokesman would not elaborate on why Lee, who visited families waiting for news of their missing family members near the explosion site on Tuesday, ordered the heightened alert but said it did not indicate the nation was preparing for an attack by North Korea.
U.S. Forces Korea spokesman David Oten said the U.S. military doesn’t comment on whether its troops are on heightened alert, and activity at the largest U.S. base in Seoul appeared normal.
South Korean divers have not found any sign that the missing crew members are alive, the ministry spokesman said.
Seventh Fleet spokesman Lt. Anthony Falvo said a 16-member U.S. search-and-rescue team at the site had not dived as of Tuesday evening and would do so only at South Korea’s request.
“We’re working very closely with the Korean divers to find out what exactly we can do to support them,” he said.
About 1,200 U.S. military personnel and four ships are at the site to assist if South Korea requests it. All were in the area for a joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise, which ended a day early last week due to the explosion on the Cheonan, Falvo said.
The ministry spokesman said the cause of the explosion likely won’t be determined until the pieces of the ship are lifted from the water, which could take a month or longer.
He said a crane was expected to arrive at the wreckage site by the end of the week.
The Cheonan sank during a routine patrol on the Yellow Sea near Baengnyeong Island, eight miles from a North Korean military base where surface-to-ship guided missiles and artillery are heavily deployed, according to The Associated Press.