The accidental death of volunteer diver Lee Kwang-wook at the scene of the ferry disaster off the southwest coast has focused attention on the safety of Navy, Coast Guard and civilian divers who are working around the clock to retrieve the bodies of victims.
Divers face intense pressure to retrieve as many of the missing bodies as possible before they decay beyond recognition.
According to the rescue team, around 100 to 130 divers were mobilized every day from May 1 to 6 in search of missing passengers, and 30 to 100 of them went into the murky waters.
At present, 250 Coast Guard divers, around 230 Navy divers, 30 contracted divers and another 10 volunteers are involved in search operations.
Divers work in shifts and have varying skill levels, so not every available diver actually goes into the water.
Col. Kim Jin-hwang of the Navy Ship Salvage Unit said, "Out of 120 unit divers at the scene, 66 have been sent into the water. Only divers with at least three years of experience can be deployed in such a risky operation."
Divers are required to rest for around 16 hours after diving for more than 10 minutes, but that is impossible under the present conditions.
According to the Navy, some special forces divers spend six hours a day preparing to dive and getting to the scene. They sleep or rest for six hours a day and spend the remaining 12 hours of the day supporting other divers. Out of the six hours of rest they get, divers only sleep between two or three hours.
The more they dive, the greater the chances of divers suffering from the bends. Warrant Officer Han Joo-ho, who died while searching for sailors who perished aboard the Navy corvette Cheonan in 2010, suffered from the bends after diving for three days running.
A Navy official said, "Most of the Navy divers have been sent to the scene of the tragedy so there are no replacement divers available and we can’t afford to stop looking for victims simply due to fatigue."
One volunteer diver said, "More and more divers are avoiding coming here since the death of Lee Kwang-wook because their families are against it."
The lack of public understanding makes the job of divers more difficult. Some messages on the Internet accuse them of not doing their best, and some of the victims' families refuse to accept the government's explanation of the limitations.
One diver said, "We have no choice but to go into water even though we're exhausted."