'Concordia' liner search suspended
Divers searching the capsized Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia suspended work today after the vast wreck shifted slightly, but officials said they are hoping to resume as soon as possible.
Five days after the 114,500 tonne cruise ship struck a rock and capsized off the picturesque Tuscan island of Giglio, hopes of finding anyone alive have faded and salvage experts are preparing to pump 2,300 tonnes of fuel from the hulk.
Eleven people are confirmed dead and at least 23 are still missing from more than 4,200 passengers and crew aboard when disaster struck the Concordia two hours into a week-long cruise of the western Mediterranean.
The ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, blamed for causing the disaster by coming too close to shore and then abandoning the vessel before the evacuation was complete, was put under house arrest yesterday after being questioned by a judge.
The search continued overnight on sections above the water line. Until the order was given to suspend work, divers had been preparing to resume the difficult and dangerous search of partly submerged areas of the giant ship after entries are blasted into the ship with explosives.
"The visibility is awful. Yesterday I couldn't see my hand in front of my face," said Giuseppe Minciotti, one of the specialist diving team deployed on the wreck.
"I grabbed a piece of floating debris, and I couldn't see what it was until I had my head out of the water. It was a woman's shoe," he said. "We're waiting today for new openings to be made, and we'll see if the visibility is any better in those points."
Work will focus on an evacuation assembly area on the partially submerged fourth deck, where most of the 11 bodies found so far have been located.
"It's where we have already found seven of the bodies and it's where the passengers and crew gathered to abandon ship," a coast guard spokesman said.
As the search work continued, relatives of some of the missing arrived at the scene, although little serious hope remained of finding anyone alive in the icy waters. No survivors have been rescued since Sunday.
"We are asking that in this moment all the rescue team units and authorities don't lose any time and do everything they can to recover or find, dead or alive, my daughter," said Sartonino Soria, who had come from Peru after learning that his daughter Erika, a member of the crew, was missing. "This is the reason why we are here and we will not leave until we have found Erika."
Italian authorities have put up a list of 28 missing people on an interior ministry website. They say the list probably includes five people found dead yesterday who are so far unidentified. The list of people still unaccounted for included 13 German, four French, five Italian and two US passengers, together with four crew members from Italy, India, Hungary and Peru.
The incident threatens to create an environmental disaster if the ship's fuel tanks rupture, spilling diesel into the sea in a national marine reserve.
Salvage experts are due to finish work on placing some 800m of pollution barriers around the vessel and preparations are under way to be able start pumping fuel once the search for missing people is concluded.
However, there was no word on when the work may begin. Authorities fear that stronger winds forecast for the coming days may hinder recovery work and pose a potential threat to the stability of the ship, which rests on a submerged rock outcrop.
The Concordia lies on its side in some 20m of water but the rock shelf soon falls away into much deeper water and the wreck could slide down by as much as 130m if it shifts free from the rocks.
As the search continued, prosecutors said they may appeal against the decision to allow Cpt Schettino to return home, saying he may seek to flee.
"We do not understand why the judge took this decision and we don't agree with it," an official from the prosecutor's office in Grosseto said.
A dramatic recording of a coast guard official angrily ordering Cpt Schettino to return to the ship to direct rescue operations has transfixed Italy and made a media hero out of the straight-talking coast guard captain Gregorio De Falco.
"Thank you captain," wrote the daily Corriere della Sera newspaper in a front page editorial which said that Cpt De Falco's energetic and decisive words were a wider call to a sense of personal responsibility in crisis-ridden Italy.
Cpt Schettino is accused of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck by sailing too close to shore and abandoning ship before all his passengers and crew scrambled off.
He has denied the charges and told magistrates yesterday he believed he should be credited with saving "hundreds, if not thousands" of lives because he brought the ship close to shore after it hit a rock, lawyer Bruno Leporatti said.
Video taken from a rescue helicopter in the early hours of Saturday, using a night vision camera, showed an extraordinary scene of dozens of passengers being gingerly lowered on ropes down the upturned hull of the ship into rescue boats.
The ship foundered after striking a rock as dinner was being served on Friday night. The owners say the captain swung inshore to "make a bow" to the islanders, who included a retired Italian admiral. Investigators say it was within 150m of land.
Most of the passengers and crew survived despite hours of chaos and confusion after the collision. The alarm was raised not by an SOS from the ship but mobile phone calls from passengers on board to Italian police on the mainland.