Divers suffer sickness in grueling search of sunken ferry

JINDO, South Korea, April 23 (Yonhap) -- Divers searching a sunken South Korean ferry for missing passengers are increasingly suffering exhaustion, with some of them treated for decompression sickness after long hours in cold, dark waters, officials said Wednesday.

About 550 Coast Guard, Navy and civilian divers have been desperately searching the hull of the 6,825 Sewol ferry that capsized and sank in southwestern waters a week ago.

Of 476 passengers, 150 have been confirmed dead and 152 others are still missing. Most of the victims are high school students who were trapped after being told to stay where they were when the ship started to sink.

While bad weather and murky water had hampered the rescue efforts last week, the search operation gained steam this week thanks to favorable weather. As wind and rain is forecast later this week, divers have continued their desperate search for the missing.

As the search entered into its eighth day, 10 divers were sent to hyperbaric chambers on two Navy rescue ships to treat symptoms of decompression sickness, the Navy said.

On Tuesday, a Navy Underwater Demolition Team petty officer was treated in the chamber after complaining of a severe headache and paralysis of the arms.

Decompression sickness is a painful and potentially dangerous condition that strikes deep sea divers who surface too quickly or stay in cold waters for a long time, causing paralysis, vomiting, and aching pains in joints, the ears and other parts of the body.

A hyperbaric oxygen chamber is one of the popular therapies for decompression sickness, providing patients with pure oxygen in a sealed chamber that has been pressurized above normal atmospheric pressure.

The growing pressure from grieving families has raised concerns over divers' safety as a Navy combat diver died at the weekend after diving in bad weather conditions.

The current search efforts face some of the same hurdles as those encountered after the Cheonan warship was sunk in a North Korean torpedo attack in March 2010, claiming the lives of 46 sailors.

Although remotely operated vehicles and underwater search robots were dispatched to search and take photos, divers had to feel for bodies with their hands and pull them out of the ship.

"Divers cannot just conduct search operations according to the manual as the current situation is urgent," a former Navy Salvage Ship Unit member said. "The only manual, right now, is to rescue one more person as soon as possible."

With growing fatigue among divers, the government task force team handling the disaster said it has provided them with vitamins and nutrients, while preparing measures for their safety.

"We will conduct search operations by taking necessary measures in consideration of the health and safety of divers," a government official said.

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