06/05/2014 04:18 BST | Updated 06/05/2014 05:59 BST

South Korean Ferry Disaster: Diver Dies While Searching For Bodies

A civilian diver searching for bodies in the doomed South Korean ferry that sank last month has died, authorities have said.

Officials said the 53-year-old, known only by his surname Lee, became unconscious and later died in hospital.

He is the first fatality among divers searching the Sewol ferry, which sank on 16 April with 476 people on board.

Only 174 people survived, with many trapped inside the vessel. So far the disaster has claimed 262 lives, with 40 others missing.

Divers have described having to swim though dark, cold waters into the sunken ferry, feeling for children's bodies with their hands in a maze of cabins, corridors and upturned decks.

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Divers look for people believed to have been trapped in the sunken ferry Sewol in the water off the southern coast near Jindo

"We have to touch everything with our hands,” said diver Hwang Dae-sik, whose team had retrieved 14 bodies so far.

“This is the most gruelling and heartbreaking job of my career," he told Reuters news agency.

State news agency Yonhap reported that Lee was a veteran crew member of Undine Marine Industries, which specialises in maritime engineering and rescue work.

He had lost consciousness shortly after diving into waters 25m deep in the early hours of Tuesday.

Read more: 10 Powerful Images Of S Korea Honouring Victims Of Ferry Disaster

Fellow divers lost communication with him five minutes into his dive and later pulled him to the surface. It was his first search attempt in the Sewol, according to the authorities.

Prime Minister Chung Hong-won has since ordered government officials overseeing the rescue operation to thoroughly check divers' health conditions.

Despite Lee's death, divers are continuing their searches Tuesday with the authorities believing most of the remaining missing people are in 64 of the ship's 111 areas.

Photo gallerySouth Korean Ferry Sinks See Gallery