Concordia wreck - divers face grim task

2012-01-18 19:01

Giglio - Inside the bowels of the semi-submerged Costa Concordia, rescue divers engaged in a desperate search for the missing are confronted by a chaotic maze of floating debris.

"We were crawling, groping our way forward, part in the water, part out," said Antonino Bileddu, one of dozens of divers and speleologists working in relays since disaster struck the vessel on Friday night.

Bileddu was confronted by "all kinds of objects, including floating couches" as he pushed his way along Deck 3, which contains the ship's massive Atene Theatre and two large restaurants as well as dozens of passenger cabins.

"Yesterday, we got into the ship through holes blown in the hull by the navy, and we examined all of the ship from the middle going forward towards the cinema," said Roberto Carminucci, a specialist cave-diver.

He was one of an 18-member team of speleologists whose brief is to comb the watery, debris-filled corridors and cabins.

"We have dived outside and inside the ship to find possible entry points," which would allow them to gain access to areas of the ship which might possibly contain the bodies of the missing, Carminucci said.

"We have specialist equipment, for diving and for speleology, including closed-circuit re-breathing apparatus to stop air bubbles from escaping into the water which would hamper our ability to see."

Authorities suspended the operations early on Wednesday because the unstable wreck, perched precariously on a reef, began to shift. They have previously expressed fears that it could slip into deeper water.

New openings

By midday, divers were still awaiting authorisation to resume the search.

Italian coastguard commander Cosimo Nicastro said the plan on Wednesday was to blow three new openings in the hull to provide divers a way in to previously inaccessible parts of the ship.

Meanwhile, other operations are continuing at a frenetic pace.

A Dutch salvage company has towed a barge with a giant crane into place to prepare to pump out around 2 400 tons of fuel in the tanks of the ship, which was only hours into a week-long cruise when disaster struck.

Italy's environment ministry has warned of an ecological catastrophe in the Tuscan maritime reserve if the oil should leak.

"We have an operational plan that we can start quickly and we are deploying all the means necessary to perform the pumping operation," said coastguard official Filippo Marini.

The round-the-clock effort is taking its toll on crews. One tug captain fell ill on Wednesday and had to be taken to hospital suffering from stress and exhaustion.