Stricken cruise liner in danger of sinking


THREE DAYS after it ran aground off the Tuscan coast, the luxury cruise liner Costa Concordiacould be in danger of sinking, in the process causing an environmental disaster of devastating proportions.

Meanwhile, the ship’s captain Francesco Schettino is due in court in Grosetto today. A preliminary hearing is expected to confirm his detention on charges of manslaughter, of shipwreck and of abandoning his ship.

Yesterday’s search for survivors had begun on a grim note with the early morning discovery of the sixth victim of the shipwreck, an elderly man still in his lifejacket. Rescue services now say that 16 people from the original 4,200 passengers and crew are still missing.

Rescue work on the stricken ship was temporarily halted yesterday afternoon when the boat moved nine centimetres in worsening sea conditions.

With the forecast for later this week not good, there is serious concern that a rough winter sea might knock the 114.5 tonne, 292m-long Concordiaoff its perch, just yards from the shoreline of the Tuscan island of Giglio.

Currently, the Concordialies on its side at a 90-degree angle, grounded on a 30m-deep rock ledge. There is a real risk that worsening conditions could see the ship slide off that ledge into deeper waters, sinking completely.

At that point, the recovery of its estimated 500,000 gallons of fuel would become almost impossible.

If the Concordiasinks and breaks up in rough seas, then Italy could be looking at an unprecedented environmental disaster in one its most prized marine and wildlife sanctuaries.

A Dutch team of fuel-recovery specialists has been on Giglio island since Saturday. It says it would take up to two weeks to safely remove, by suction, the Concordia’s huge supply. The disaster is greatly aggravated by the fact that the Concordialeft Civitavecchia port on Friday, just hours before the shipwreck, with full fuel tanks.

In the meantime, the position of Capt Schettino looks very compromised. Grosetto public prosecutor Francesco Verusio told reporters yesterday that said his initial concern about the captain’s behaviour had been confirmed by the evidence of hundreds of survivors.

Furthermore, the prosecutor described the manoeuvre, whereby Capt Schettino reportedly sailed close to the Giglio shoreline in a sort of sail-by, as “foolhardy, dangerous and inexcusable”.

Italian media sources have suggested that Capt Schettino’s navigation might have been foolhardy bravura, showing off both to the crew and to some on land. Furthermore, those same sources suggest this was not the first such “bravura”.

Mr Verusio claims that the Concordiawas 150-200 metres off land when it smashed into rocks, opening up a 70m-long gash which very quickly saw the machine rooms flood, causing a power failure and the listing of the boat.

Experienced seamen would argue that a boat of this dimension should stay at least two nautical miles from the shoreline.

Media sources also argue that Capt Schettino not only delayed giving the order to abandon ship but that he then himself abandoned the ship three hours before the last of the passengers was evacuated. Although the ship struck rocks at 21.42 on Friday night, he told the Livorno harbour office, when it contacted him 26 minutes later, that there was no problem, merely an electrical failure.

The Livorno harbour office had been alerted by a phone call from police in Prato who had been contacted by the worried family of one of the ship’s passengers. The family were concerned by reports from their daughter that people were in lifejackets on the Concordia and that it was listing.

The harbour authority then traced the Concordia’s movements by satellite and was surprised to discover that it was travelling fast, at 15 knots, and sailing very close to Giglio island.

The Livorno authorities double-checked with Capt Schettino who, on being questioned closely, conceded that the ship was indeed taking on water. Under pressure from the port authorities, he then sounded the Mayday and “abandon ship” alarms, more than an hour after the original collision.

Capt Schettino is then alleged to have abandoned the ship himself, 20 minutes before midnight. On top of that, he reportedly failed to return to the ship to oversee the evacuation when asked to do so by the Livorno authorities.

At a news conference in Genoa yesterday, the Costa Cruise company distanced itself from Capt Schettino saying he had been responsible for “significant human error” in that he had sailed “too close to the shore”.

Industry experts estimate that the disaster could cost Costa Cruise up to $90 million.