A Dutch company prepared to begin pumping 2,380 tonnes of fuel out of an Italian cruise shipwreck on Tuesday as rescue workers kept up the search for 17 people still missing after the crash.
The Smit Salvage team said it would first carry out security checks at the scene before syphoning the oil out of the 114,500-tonne Costa Concordia, which lies beached on rock and sand on the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio.
"We will launch the operation at dawn. The team will have to stabilise the rig before sending divers down to assess the situation around the fuel pods," Smit agent Max Iguera said on Giglio.
"We will then start hot-tapping in a few days," he said, referring to the operation that involves pumping the fuel out into a nearby ship and replacing it with water so as not to affect the ship's balance.
Fire brigade services will be on board the rig to coordinate the operation, as their divers continue to search for missing people.
Smit will also place hundreds of metres of absorbent barriers around the ship to contain any possible oil spills during the operation.
On Monday rescuers pulled the bodies of two women from the wreck, bringing the death toll to 15. Divers found the bodies near the liner's Internet cafe after Italy's navy blew new access holes in the vessel with explosives.
Relatives of the missing, some of whom are waiting anxiously on the island for news of their loved ones 11 days after the disaster, will have to wait for DNA testing to confirm the identities of the badly decomposed bodies.
The race is now on to empty the ship's fuel tanks, as environmentalists warn that an oil spill would be catastrophic in Europe's biggest marine sanctuary.
Rescuers on Monday confirmed local residents' reports that a slick measuring 300 metres by 200 metres had already appeared, apparently made up of oil from the ship that sank at first but then resurfaced due to the currents.
The head of Italy's civil protection agency, Franco Gabrielli, said there has also been some contamination of the sea from toxic substances on board, but tests on samples of water near the wreck showed no hydrocarbon pollution.
The coastguard has said that emptying the fuel tanks will take 28 days.
Gabrielli said emergency workers would continue to search for missing people while others tried to clear out the wreckage. Decomposition of food, furniture clutter and the turbid waters were complicating the work, he added.
Underlining the high-risk rescue operation, a fireman working on the hull of the ship broke his leg on Monday and had to be evacuated by helicopter.
There have also been widespread fears that the half-submerged luxury liner sprawled on the coastline could slide off an underwater ledge and sink into the depths of the open sea, but Gabrielli said the vessel was stable.
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