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24 April 2024

Deal struck for liner passengers, oil pumping delayed


Some 3,000 survivors of Italy's cruise ship disaster will receive a basic 11,000 euros each plus expenses, negotiators announced Friday two weeks after the accident which is feared to have killed up to 32 people.

Navy divers blew new holes in the side of the beached vessel to search previously unexplored parts of the ship for missing people, though officials said there was now no chance of finding survivors.

The known death toll is 16, with another 16 people still missing.

While relatives of those lost waited for news of their loved ones, Dutch company Smit Salvage prepared to pump 2,380 tonnes of fuel out of the vessel.

Smit and Italian company Neri attached valves to six of the Costa Concordia's 23 fuel tanks in a first phase to syphon off around 50 percent of the ship's oil, amid fears that a spill would be environmentally disastrous.

Salvage workers will carry out a so-called "hot-tapping" operation, which involves pumping the fuel out and replacing it with water so as not to affect the ship's balance and stop it from slipping into the open sea.

Despite earlier reports that the operation could be brought forward, the head of Italy's civil protection agency, Franco Gabrielli, said Friday that it may be delayed until Sunday. The whole process is expected to take weeks.

Tuscany's environmental agency (ARPAT) said white strands seen floating in the sea were no cause for environmental alarm and were likely to be fibres from the ship's sofas. Tests would be performed to confirm the hypothesis, it said.

Passengers of the stricken cruise liner learnt they will get at least 11,000 euros each from its Costa Crociere operator under a deal struck after the January 13 disaster.

"This deal concerns some 3,000 passengers from 60 countries, including some 900 Italians," Adoc, one of several consumer advocacy groups that negotiated the agreement, said.

The group said it thought around 85 percent of them would agree to the deal, and that even children who were travelling for free would get 11,000 euros (ê14,400) each.

Passengers will also be reimbursed for the cost of the cruise, estimated at some 3,000 euros each, as well as any travel and medical expenses. The agreement does not concern those who were injured or lost loved ones, it said.

"It's a landmark agreement to bring an end to a tragic affair," said Adoc president Carlo Pileri.

The Costa Concordia had 4,229 people aboard including about 1,000 personnel when it ran aground near Giglio, a picturesque island off Tuscany that is part of a nature reserve known to swimmers and divers for its clear waters.

Since the disaster, several consumer associations have announced their intention to bring a class action against Costa Crociere.

Damages are much higher in the United States, where passengers can expect a minimum of 125,000 euros each, "several times that" if they were wounded, or "several million euros" if they lost a loved one, according to a US lawyer.

Gary Lobaton, a crew member, filed a US lawsuit on Thursday seeking a class action, claiming the ship operator failed to alert those on board of a "deadly and dangerous condition."

Lobaton, who according to the suit is a resident of Lima, Peru, seeks damages for himself and others aboard the ship.

Prosecutors continued to investigate the role of the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, in the disaster.

Schettino, who is under house arrest, faces charges along with his first officer Ciro Ambrosio for negligent homicide.

Ambrosio was due to be interrogated by Grosseto prosecutors on Friday.

"We are fairly calm. We have elements to show that Mr. Ambrosio behaved in a correct fashion," his lawyer, Salvatore Catalano, was cited as saying.

In the aftermath of the disaster, humorous tales have emerged of passengers caught in the headlines who had hoped to cover up their presence on the cruise.

Italian priest Massimo Donghi had told his parishioners he was going on a spiritual retreat, only to be outed by his niece, who posted a note on the social network Facebook to say he had escaped the wreck unscathed.