GIGLIO, Italy Jan 17 Italian divers and earthquake rescue veterans are braving chill waters, ships decks that are now sheer cliffs and the peril of waves sending heavy furniture crashing on top of them to scour a half-sunken super-liner for survivors and, more likely, bodies.
Having resorted in despair to blasting their way through the pitch-dark maze of debris, luxury cabins and leisure facilities that is the badly listing hulk of the seagoing pleasure palace, they found five more dead aboard the Costa Concordia on Tuesday, making 11 in all. And the strain is beginning to tell.
"Virtually all the dry part has been searched. It would need a miracle to find anyone alive in the wet part," one rescue specialist told Reuters before climbing aboard the wreck for a fourth gruelling day dangling on ropes in the blackness, groping along corridors and stairways and through hundreds of cabins.
In line with service practice, the man spoke on condition that he was not identified in the media.
On Monday, the 114,000-tonne ship, twice the size of the Titanic and the biggest passenger vessel ever to founder, shifted on the rocky, sloping seabed off the Tuscan island of Giglio, slamming hatches and showering the intrepid rescue teams with debris that ranges from pots and pans to grand pianos.
Work was briefly suspended after the slippage on the grounds of safety for the dozens engaged in the operations on board. Of some 4,200 passengers and crew, 24 people are still missing.
Choking back tears of fatigue and stress, the swarthy, athletically built firefighter, who insisted he could not be named, concluded there was little hope: "They would have to have found an air pocket. But they would also have to have somehow stayed mostly dry, because it's freezing cold out there."
The rescue crews, working in teams along the 1,000-foot length of the gigantic wreck, include divers from the Navy and Coast Guard as well as many specialists from Italy's national fire service, the Vigili del Fuoco. They are often the first to respond, not just at fires but emergencies ranging from traffic accidents and heart attacks to earthquakes and shipwrecks.
Trained in working their way through confined spaces, using ropes to climb up and rappel down, the men aboard the Costa Concordia are an elite who guard their identities closely - they have removed nametags from their uniforms at Giglio - and whose experience brings with it its share of emotional scars.
"It's very dangerous out there. But in a way it's also wonderful," said the man. "We don't get paid any more for the extra qualifications we have, but we do this for passion."
Recalling his work in the mountain city of L'Aquila during the 2009 earthquake that left more than 300 dead, the firefighter who spoke to Reuters said: "In L'Aquila I found only corpses. And I'm afraid the same thing will happen here."
No one has been found alive since Sunday. But the rescue effort continues, combing through the teetering wreck yard by yard: "Every time you leave home you wonder how it will turn out," the firefighter said. "I have three kids..."
His voice trailing off, his eyes welled with tears and he turned away to prepare for the day's work on the stricken ship. (Reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)