(ATTN: CHANGES headline, lead; UPDATES throughout with latest details of search; ADDS photo)
JINDO, South Korea, May 6 (Yonhap) -- Rescue workers continued their search Tuesday for 40 people still missing in the sinking of a ferry 20 days ago, despite growing concern over their health following the death of a diver during a pre-dawn mission under bad weather conditions.
The recovery of passengers' bodies from the Sewol ferry has been underway since the ship sank in southwestern waters off Jindo on April 16, raising the confirmed death toll to 262.
As Coast Guard, Navy and civilian divers have braved the harsh weather to carry out the grim task of retrieving bodies in the last three weeks, they have increasingly been suffering from exhaustion, with some of them treated for decompression sickness after ascending from depths of over 30 meters.
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On Tuesday, a 53-year-old civilian worker fell unconscious shortly after diving into waters around 25 meters deep at 6:05 a.m.
The veteran crew member of Undine Marine Industries, who was only identified by his surname Lee, was brought to a nearby hospital at around 7:12 a.m., but he was pronounced dead soon after. Lee is the first diver to die during the search mission.
Undine Marine Industries is a private business specializing in offshore and subsea engineering as well as maritime rescue and salvage work.
The search effort was briefly suspended following his death, but the government rescue team said it will proceed with the operation as scheduled throughout the day.
The rescue team plans to navigate through the lobby, stairs, toilets and snack bars, and revisit the cabins they have already searched to find those still missing. So far, divers have searched 60 out of 64 cabins, the government team said.
After the incident, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won ordered the government rescue team to thoroughly check the health conditions of divers to safely proceed with the ongoing efforts, his office said.
The work is still tough as the difference between high and low tide is the highest at the disaster site, which is known for its fast currents, during this time of year.
Last week, a 31-year-old civilian diver fell unconscious after diving four times before daybreak to set guideline ropes around the ship, while several other divers were treated at hyperbaric oxygen therapy centers, according to officials.
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.
As the search is expected to last throughout this week, the government crisis center has limited each diver to one dive per day to prevent decompression sickness.
Families have raised concerns that rescue workers may not be able to retrieve all bodies from the upturned ship as several bodies have recently been retrieved from waters far from the disaster site.
Workers in fishing boats increased the amount of netting around the scene as some 750 pieces of lost articles, such as bags and slippers, have been collected in nearby seas.
Waves in the area were expected to reach between 0.5 and 1 meter on Tuesday, with wind blowing at a speed of 6 to 9 meters per second.
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