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Flowers at sea as Italy cruise wreck search suspended


Flowers were cast on to the sea by the wreck of an Italian cruise ship by relatives of those still missing on Friday, a week after the tragedy in which up to 32 people are feared dead.

Rescue workers were forced to suspend their operations on the giant 17-deck Costa Concordia after experts warned that the ship was slowly slipping off a rocky underwater shelf into the open Mediterranean with 2,380 tons of fuel on board.

Choppy seas heightened fears that the ship lying half-submerged on its side off the Tuscan island of Giglio could sink completely in deep water.

Emergency crews who have been working around the clock on the wreck since last Friday even sent down a small remote-controlled robot to determined whether the submerged side of the ship could be attached to its resting place.

The 114,500-ton liner crashed into rocks off the island of Giglio on the night of January 13 with 4,229 people from 60 countries on board and began to keel over just as passengers were settling down for supper at the start of their cruise.

Stories of ordinary bravery meanwhile continued to emerge from the disaster.

A crew member who worked as an animator on board said he quickly put on his super hero costumes to reassure children as the vessel began to list and the ship's chaplain said captain Francesco Schettino -- since reviled as an incompetent coward -- had cried in his arms once on shore.

Thirty-year-old Giovanni Lazzarini said he dressed up as Spiderman, Mister Incredible and even Wonder Woman to entertain eight children in a theatre.

"I put on the costumes to try to ease the fears of the children" after the ship crashed, he said, quoted by the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Catholic chaplain Raffaele Malena told the French magazine Famille Chretienne: "At around 2:30 am I spoke to the captain. He embraced me and cried like a baby for about a quarter of an hour."

Malena said that before leaving the boat he helped a child who was being trampled in the stampede to evacuate the boat and had time to pray to Jesus Christ in the chapel, saying: "I'm asking you for nothing short of a miracle!"

Schettino, who is being investigated for multiple manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing a shipwreck, is currently under house arrest at his home on the Amalfi coast but has said he will appeal against the restriction.

He has also denied Italian newspaper reports that he was joined on the bridge at one point by Domnica Cemortan, a 25-year-old Moldovan ballerina who the reports say is someone investigators are keen to question.

Cemortan told AFP in Moldova that she would be happy to provide testimony if asked to do so and said she had helped out in the evacuation effort simply because she could communicate with Russian-speaking passengers.

New amateur videos also came to light on Friday -- one of them showing a crew member misleading dozens of frightened passengers wearing life jackets by saying there was no alarm and that they should return to their cabins.

The second video from an inhabitant of Giglio showed the Costa Concordia sailing past very close to the island on an earlier voyage. Lloyd's List in London said the ship had actually sailed nearer the island than when it ran aground.

Eleven people have been confirmed dead in the tragedy so far including four French nationals, one Italian and one Spaniard among the passengers and two crew members -- a Peruvian waiter and a Hungarian violinist.

Three of the bodies recovered have not yet been identified.

Relatives of the 21 people still missing have travelled to Giglio and towns on the Italian mainland, clinging to the hope that their loved ones may somehow have survived the disaster.

The mother, father and sister of a missing Peruvian waitress and the brother of an Indian waiter took a coastguard vessel out to the wreck and laid a bunch of white and yellow flowers in the sea next to the shipwreck.

The mother of missing five-year-old Dayana Arlotti was also on the island, along with the relatives of a young French couple lost at sea.

Rescue crews meanwhile met on Friday to discuss "whether or not to call of the search," an emergency official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Dutch company Smit Salvage is ready to pump out the fuel in what is known as a "hot-tapping" operation, but officials say the search on the ship would have to be suspended for them to do so as it could affect the vessel's stability.

Experts said the side of the luxury ship was slipping off a rocky sea shelf at a rate of around one centimetre (0.4 inches) every hour towards the open sea.

"Measurements taken during the night show a progressive slow movement," Nicola Casagli, an earth sciences professor, said on the island.

Casagli said the ship was lying on two rocks -- one under the bow and one under the stern -- but the middle part was suspended underwater.

As the weather deteriorated, emergency crews attached rope ladders to the exposed side of the ship to ease access to the vessel, warning that approaching on rubber dinghies was becoming increasingly dangerous.

Environmentalists and local residents of this pristine nature reserve and marine sanctuary are afraid there could be a spill from the ship's tanks filled with 2,380 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 200 tonnes of diesel.

The Italian cabinet was expected Friday to adopt measures for stricter regulation of shipping routes, after reports that the Costa Concordia veered wildly off route in a show-off manoeuvre to steam past the Tuscan island.

It was also expected to declare a state of emergency in the area, a formal measure to ease large-scale salvage operations as well as to contain any possible environmental damage -- which so far is believed to be minimal.

The head of the vessel's owner, Costa Crociere, said in an interview that the company had been warned too late of the scale of the disaster.

Pier Luigi Foschi told Corriere della Sera that the first call from Schettino to Costa came at 10:05 pm (2105 GMT) -- almost half an hour after the ship hit rocks that are well known to local inhabitants.

The announcement to evacuate the ship came 68 minutes after that call.

"This hour and more of delay is not normal. It's unjustified," Foschi said, adding: "I can't sleep at night.... If the ship had been abandoned earlier we wouldn't have lost human lives."

"Personally I think (Schettino) wasn't honest with us," he said.

"I think he was in an emotionally altered state. He was watching his creature, his ship, sinking in front of him."

Foschi also stressed that Schettino was acting on his own initiative by steering towards Giglio in the first place "without us being informed."

Schettino's lawyer Bruno Leporatti, however, emphasised that the captain "alerted the company immediately of the problem on board."

Foschi added: "Something like this will never happen again. Never again."