Italy wreck: Search for missing resumes

2012-01-19 10:47

Giglio - Italian rescue service divers on Thursday resumed their search aboard the half-sunken Costa Concordia cruise liner, officials said, speaking six days after the ship ran aground.

The operation was a "a race against time" ahead of worsening weather. There was also the need to remove environmentally hazardous fuel from the vessel's tank, the officials said.

"The ship is still precariously balanced on the shoal, so they [the divers] will have to move carefully," Luca Cari, a spokesperson for Italy's firefighting services, which is responsible for the rescue efforts, told dpa.

"Any shift in the Concordia's position would mean danger, and we would have to suspend operations again," he added.

Slightly more than 20 of the 4 229 people on board at the time of the January 13 accident have yet to be accounted for, Italian officials said. The certified death toll stands at 11. Italian officials have only released 27 names so far, including two Americans, 12 Germans, six Italians, four French, and one person each from Hungary, India and Peru.

The Hungarian victim was identified on Wednesday as 38-year-old Sandor Feher, who had been working as an entertainer on the stricken cruise ship. His body was found inside the wreck and identified by his mother, who had travelled to the Italian city of Grosseto, according to Hungary’s foreign ministry.

Strong winds

Cari, said Thursday's search efforts would concentrate on the submerged half of the vessel's fourth bridge.

As in previous occasions over the past week, rescuers might need to detonate explosives to blast their way through the ship's hull to reach parts of the ship blocked off by piles of furniture and other debris.

Meteorologists have forecast strong winds for later Thursday, which could push waves up by 2m, possibly causing the Costa Concordia to shift its position and sink further.

A small shift registered on Wednesday prompted officials to call off the search for most of the day.

Meanwhile, touching tales of the dead and missing in the grounding of the cruise liner are starting to emerge.

Jozsef Balog, a pianist who worked with Feher on the ship, told the Blikk newspaper that Feher was wearing a lifejacket when he decided to return to his cabin to retrieve his violin. Feher was last seen on deck en route to the area where he was supposed to board a lifeboat.

According to Balog, Feher helped put lifejackets on several crying children before returning to his cabin.

No news on the missing

Others among the missing include five-year-old Dayana Arlotti and her father, William Arlotti, who were on the cruise with the father's girlfriend. The girl's parents separated three years ago.

The girl's mother, Susy Albertini, said she has been desperately calling police, port officials and the cruise company for days for news of her daughter and estranged husband.

"I last heard from her on Thursday," when she waved goodbye at school, Albertini, aged 28, told the La Voce di Romagna newspaper.

"The absurd thing is that no one can tell me anything, and what little I know is from the newspapers," she said. "Sometimes they ask absurd questions, like if my daughter knows how to swim. Do they understand she is five years old? What kind of question is that?"

William Arlotti, aged 36, had gone on the cruise with his girlfriend, Michela Marconcelli, who survived. She reported seeing Dayana, who was wearing a lifejacket, slide into the water when the boat shifted, but said someone helped retrieve her, the newspaper reported.

Hearing planned

Marconcelli said she was pushed forward onto the life raft, and lost track of her companion and his daughter.

Other missing include retirees Jerry and Barbara Heil of White Bear Lake, Minnesota.

Sarah Heil, their daughter, told WBBM radio in Chicago that her parents had been looking forward to the 16-day cruise after raising four kids and sending them all off to college.

"They never had any money," she said. "So when they retired, they went travelling. And this was to be a big deal - a 16-day trip. They were really excited about it."

The Heil children said in a blog post on Wednesday that their parents were not among the passengers whose bodies were recently recovered, and they were praying that weather conditions would improve so authorities could resume search operations.

A US congressional committee announced on Wednesday that it will hold a hearing next month on the safety implications of the Costa Concordia accident, saying US and international maritime organisations need to ensure standards are in place to protect passengers’ safety on cruise ships.

Captain under arrest

Passengers have complained vocally about the chaotic evacuation and poor treatment by Costa officials once they got on land, with some saying they were provided only a single night of hotel accommodations and denied help getting to their embassies to get new passports.

Costa owner, Miami-based Carnival Corporation, responded on Wednesday, saying it was offering assistance and counselling to passengers and crew and was trying to take stock of lost possessions.

"Costa has also begun the process of refunding all voyage costs including both passenger cruise fares and all costs incurred while on board," Carnival said in a statement. "Our senior management teams are working together to determine additional support."

Rescue operations were suspended early on Wednesday after instruments attached to the ship detected it had shifted, raising concerns for the safety of rescuers. By evening, officials still did not have enough data to assure the ship had stopped resettling and it was unclear when the search would resume.

Environment Minister Corrado Clini, who has warned of an environmental catastrophe in the waters around Giglio, a sanctuary for marine mammals, briefed Parliament on the effort to extract the half-million gallons of fuel. He said the ship risked sinking if it slips off its rocky perch.

Schettino was questioned by a judge for three hours on Tuesday, then ordered held under house arrest rather than jailed - a decision that federal prosecutors plan to challenge.

The judge, in her reasoning released on Wednesday, said Schettino didn’t represent a flight risk since he had stayed near the ship even after abandoning it, the ANSA news agency reported.

Schettino upset

Schettino’s lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, told reporters house arrest made sense.

"He never left the scene," the lawyer said. "There has never been a danger of flight."

Leporatti added that Schettino was upset by the accident, contrary to depictions in the Italian media that he did not appear to show regret.

"He is a deeply shaken man, not only for the loss of his ship, which for a captain is a grave thing, but above all for what happened and the loss of human life," Leporatti said.

Criminal charges including manslaughter and abandoning ship are expected to be filed by prosecutors shortly. Schettino faces a possible 12 years in prison on the abandoning ship charge alone.