BAENGNYEONG ISLAND, South Korea – Divers finally reached the wreckage of a naval ship that sank nearly three days ago and rapped with hammers on the stern where 46 crew members are believed trapped, but got no response, military officials said Monday.
Military officials said time was running out for any navy crewmen who might still be alive and trapped inside watertight cabins aboard the Cheonan, which sank after an explosion late Friday split the 1,200-ton vessel apart. Fifty-eight others, including the captain, were rescued, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
The ship has dozens of waterproof cabins, and authorities initially said that if crew members shut the doors quickly enough, some may have survived in the sunken vessel. However, the supply of oxygen in the cabins was estimated to last up to 69 hours -- a deadline that passed Monday night.
The exact cause of the explosion -- one of South Korea's worst naval disasters -- remained unclear, and officials said it could take weeks to determine but the South Korean defense chief says the North may have intentionally floated a mine to damage the naval ship.
Rough waves and high winds over the weekend prevented military divers from gaining access the wreckage lying under water near Baengnyeong Island in the west.
With time running out, divers plunged back into the waters Monday, reaching the ship's front and rear segments. Most of the rescued crew members were in the front of the ship, while those missing were in the rear.
The divers knocked on the ship with hammers but there were no response, Rear Adm. Lee Ki-sik of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters. Cameras were also lowered to the site.
Divers were next preparing to make their way into the ship, Lee said.
The Cheonan was on a routine patrol Friday night when an explosion split the ship in a matter minutes, according to Capt. Choi Won-il.
There were initial concerns it was an attack from North Korea because the area has been the site of three bloody skirmishes in the past. The two Koreas remain in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.
The North Korean military's first comments since the ship went down warned the U.S. and South Korea on Monday against engaging in "psychological warfare" by letting journalists into the Demilitarized Zone.
Still, the North Korean military was keeping a close watch on the search operation, the Joint Chiefs of Staffs said in a defense committee report cited by the Yonhap news agency.
President Lee Myung-bak said rescuers "should not give up hope," according to a statement from the presidential Blue House after Lee met with a security ministers Monday.
No bodies have been retrieved from the ship, feeding families' hopes that their sons and husbands might still be alive, the navy said. However, sonar devices used to locate the ship have captured no sounds coming from within, naval officials said.
Four U.S. Navy ships and 16 divers joined the search Monday after getting a request from Seoul for assistance, said Lt. Anthony Falvo, a spokesman for the U.S. 7th Fleet, based just south of Tokyo.
Grief-stricken relatives boarded a boat Sunday to see the spot where the ship went down.
"My son said he would defend the nation, but instead he ended up like this," one cried out as she clutched a framed photo of her son.