Five more bodies found on Italian ship

Wed, Jan 18, 2012, 00:00

EVEN THOUGH realistic hopes of finding any more survivors have now all but disappeared, rescue work on the grounded luxury cruise ship Costa Concordiacontinued apace yesterday. Navy divers, using explosives to gain access to different parts of the half-flooded ship and working mainly under water, yesterday found five more bodies, those of four men and a woman, all in their lifejackets, near one of the emergency assembly points.

Those grim discoveries bring the Concordiadeath toll to 11, with 22 still missing. One of the more confusing aspects of the Concordia’s shipwreck is that since the ship ran aground off the island of Giglio last Friday night, there has been uncertainty about the exact number of those still missing.

For the first two days, the missing allegedly numbered 16 to 18 but yesterday morning, many Italian media sources carried speculation that the number could be as high as 31. At a news conference yesterday, the head of the civil protection services, Franco Gabrielli, said the confusion had been caused because the official passenger list was still on the ship while the estimates of missing numbers had been partly based on enquiries from worried relatives.

With bad weather forecast for later this week, there remains a concern that the Concordiamight still slide off the 30m-deep ledge on which it sits, moving into deeper waters where it would sink.

This would make the recovery of the ship’s 2,400 tons of fuel all but impossible, resulting in a potential environmental disaster if and when the fuel leaked into the Mediterranean.

Yesterday the Dutch company, Smit, which has been on standby since last Saturday ready to siphon off the fuel, said it could start the process today if the Italian authorities gave the go-ahead. However, a spokesman added it could take from two to four weeks to recover the fuel given that it is now likely to be in a semi-solid state. This means it would first have to be heated before it could be removed.

As of now, the future of the wreck of the Concordiais not clear. Salvage experts suggest that it might still be possible, with the use of many tugs, to right the ship, refloat it and tow it into port without any significant fuel spillage into what is one of Italy’s most prized marine and wildlife sanctuaries. In the meantime, the environment ministry is preparing for the worst, having already positioned a series of ships around the Concordia, ready to lay absorbent panels in an attempt to contain the huge quantities of oil.

In a separate development yesterday, the captain of the Concordia, Francesco Schettino, who has been in detention since last Saturday, was surprisingly released into house arrest. This decision by preliminary court judge Valeria Montesarchio seems certain to be highly controversial given that Capt Schettino’s position looks highly compromised.

Yesterday, Italian news media websites carried recordings of a phone conversation early on Saturday morning between Capt Schettino and a furious coast guard official, Gregorio De Falco, who tries in vain to order the captain to return to his post in command of the stricken ship. At the time of the phone call, Capt Schettino was in a lifeboat stuck on the side of the ship and on his way to land, more than two hours before the last of the passengers had been evacuated.

In his defence during a hearing in Grosetto prison yesterday, Capt Schettino reportedly claimed he had not abandoned the ship but rather had “saved thousands of lives”. That claim appears to be contradicted by the evidence of the phone call conversation with Mr De Falco as well as by eyewitness reports that place him on land in Giglio, long before the ship had been evacuated.

Furthermore, Rome daily La Repubblica, claims that an initial coast guard investigation into the disaster has suggested that the captain’s indecision in the wake of the collision may well have cost lives. Based on the evidence of Concordia officers, the investigation reportedly suggests that a vital hour was needlessly lost and in the end officers became so disillusioned with the captain they began taking orders from his second in command, Roberto Brosio.

The coast guard investigation also confirms media reports that Capt Schettino turned off the ship’s automatic pilot to stage his “sail-by”, much too close to the rocks off Giglio island, in the process ripping a 70m-long gash in the hull. Yesterday’s preliminary hearing also ordered that Capt Schettino be drug-tested.

PHONE TRANSCRIPT SHIP'S CAPTAIN IN THE DOCK

THE CHARGE against Capt Francesco Schettino of the Costa Concordia, namely that he abandoned his ship long before many of the passengers and crew, seems to be confirmed by the following transcript of a conversation between him and Comdt Gregorio De Falco of the Livorno coast guard service.

The time is 1.46am, four hours after the collision but still nearly two hours before the last of the passengers got off the by-now grounded and badly listing vessel.

Capt Schettino, having already abandoned ship, is in one of the lifeboats stuck on the side of the liner unable to reach the water when Comdt De Falco calls.

By this stage, the coast guard service had concluded that Capt Schettino had abandoned his position.

A furious De Falco twice orders him to make his way round to the front of the vessel and climb back up on to it, via a special rope ladder, and reassume command. Capt Schettino objects that the ship is listing badly but Comdt De Falco is clearly not interested in excuses and shouts at him.

De Falco: “Listen Schettino, there are people who are coming down the ladder on the bow. You go back in the opposite direction, get back on the ship, and tell me how many people there are on board. Tell me if there are women and children and what state they are in. And you tell me the number of each of these categories. Is that clear? I’m recording this conversation . . . listen Schettino, perhaps you have saved yourself from the sea but I will make you look very bad . . . Christ, get back on board!”

As Capt Schettino appears to hesitate, De Falcobarks at him: “What are you doing? Are your refusing to go back on board? Captain, this is an order. I am the one in charge now. You have declared ‘abandon ship’. We already have some deaths . . .

Capt Schettino: “How many?”

De Falco: “Christ, you should be telling me that, not me telling you . . . ”

Capt Schettino: “But commandante, here it is dark, you can hardly see anything . . . ”

De Falco: “Christ, Schettino, what do you want to do, go home? Get back on board for the love of God . . . That is an order and don’t make any more excuses.”

According to many eyewitness accounts, Capt Schettino never did get back aboard the liner. Instead he made for land and then, after some time, left the port of Giglio by taxi.

PADDY AGNEW