GIGLIO, Italy (Reuters) - Divers searching the capsized Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia suspended work on Wednesday after the vast wreck shifted by more than a meter, delaying plans to remove the oil from the liner to prevent a possible environmental disaster.
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 22 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.
A German woman, listed among the missing, was found in Germany and is well, while a Hungarian crewmember on the missing list has been identified among five dead found on Tuesday, authorities said.
The search was suspended all day on Wednesday after the ship slipped by some 1.5 meters. As darkness fell, a spokesman said it had stabilized but it was unclear if the search would resume before Thursday morning.
The ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, blamed for causing the accident by steering too close to shore and then abandoning the vessel before the evacuation was complete, was put under house arrest on Tuesday after being questioned by a judge.
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 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.”
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 chill 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,” he said.
The list of those still unaccounted for included 13 German, four French, five Italian and two American passengers, together with four crew members from Italy, India and Peru. Some of those missing are believed to be included among dead that have been found but not yet identified.
Environment Minister Corrado Clini told parliament there was a risk that with sea conditions expected to worsen the ship could slip down 50 to 90 meters from the rocky ledge it is resting on, further damaging the vessel and creating a major hazard to the environment in one of Europe’s largest natural marine parks.
He said ship operator Costa Cruises had been instructed to ensure steps are “rapidly completed” to limit the damage if the ship’s fuel tanks rupture, including putting in place some 1,000 meters of pollution barriers.
Clini said fuel extraction would take at least two weeks and could not begin until the search for survivors and bodies was completed.
“WATCHING THE SHIP SINK”
As the search continued and parliament debated the disaster, prosecutors said they would appeal against the decision to allow 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.
In the ruling, the judge said Schettino had shown “incredible carelessness” and “a total inability to manage the successive phases of the emergency,” only sounding the alarm 30-40 minutes after the initial impact.
He had abandoned the ship and remained on shore in a state of “complete inertia” for more than an hour, “watching the ship sink,” the ruling said. “No serious attempt was made by the captain to return even close to the ship in the immediate aftermath of abandoning the Costa Concordia.”
A dramatic recording of a coast guard official angrily ordering 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 De Falco’s energetic and decisive words were a wider call to a sense of personal responsibility in crisis-ridden Italy.
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 on Tuesday 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, his 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 150 meters of shore.
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.
Additional reporting by Silvia Ognibene in Grosseto; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Peter Graff