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01 October 2023

Search for 29 missing in Italy liner as captain questioned


Emergency workers searched Tuesday for 29 people missing from an Italian cruise disaster which killed six as the ship's captain faced an interrogation on accusations that he veered wildly off course

The head of the Italian coastguard, Marco Brusco, said there was "a glimmer of hope" for finding more survivors since the giant half-submerged vessel had not yet been fully inspected, but rescuers said the chances were now slim.

Brusco said four crew members and 25 tourists including six Italians remained unaccounted for. A German official said at least 10 German nationals were still missing and two US nationals were also believed lost in the tragedy.

Six bodies have so far been found in the wreck of the Costa Concordia, which occurred off the coast of the picturesque island of Giglio late on Friday the 13th.

Three of the victims  two French passengers and one Peruvian crew member drowned after jumping into the chilly Mediterranean waters to escape.

Rodolfo Raiteri, head of the coastguard's diving team, told AFP on the shore: "The conditions inside are disastrous. It's very difficult. The corridors are cluttered and it's hard for the divers to swim through."

Choppy seas forced a temporary evacuation of the stricken 17-deck Costa Concordia for several hours on Monday after the ship slipped on a rocky shelf under the sea, sparking fears that the hulk could sink entirely.

Giglio mayor Sergio Ortelli warned that the stricken vessel, which hit sumberged rocks and keeled over off the island holiday spot, was an "ecological timebomb" in the pristine waters of a marine nature reserve.

The head of the company that owns the vessel said it had hit a rock as a result of an "inexplicable" error by the captain, Francesco Schettino, who was arrested on Saturday along with first officer Ciro Ambrosio.

"He carried out a manoeuvre which had not been approved by us and we disassociate ourselves from such behaviour," said Pier Luigi Foschi, the boss of Costa Crociere, Europe's largest cruise operator.

Italian prosecutors accuse Schettino and Ambrosio of multiple homicide and abandoning ship before all the passengers were rescued.

A transcript of a conversation between Schettino and a port official was released Monday showing that the captain refused to return to the ship.

"You must tell us how many people, children, women and passengers are there and the exact number of each category," the official tells Schettino, according to the transcript of the conversation on one of the ship's "black boxes".

"What are you doing? Are you abandoning the rescue?" the official says.

The Costa Concordia was carrying more than 4,200 people when it ran aground shortly after starting a seven-day Mediterranean cruise on its way to Marseille in France and Barcelona in Spain, just as many passengers were having dinner.

Carnival Corp, the parent company of Costa Crociere, put the initial cost of the disaster at ê85-95 million (67-75 million euros).

Island residents have already said the ship was sailing far too close to Giglio and had hit a reef known as the School Rocks, well known to inhabitants.

The Corriere della Sera reported Monday that the captain had passed close to the island's rocky shores to please the head waiter who comes from Giglio.

It also quoted witnesses as claiming the waiter had warned Schettino just before the accident happened: "Careful, we are extremely close to the shore."

Crews on Monday put down anti-spill booms as fears of a leak of the ship's 2,380 tons of fuel rose and local officials called for strict curbs in the future on shipping routes in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

A Dutch company specialising in salvage operations, Smit, was to begin pumping out the fuel this week. Officals said the ship itself could then be taken off Giglio in an unprecedented operation using massive floating devices.

Passengers meanwhile described confusion on board as the lights went out and how they were at first told it was just an electrical fault -- before the ship lurched sharply on to its side and panic set in.

Rose Metcalf, a 23-year-old crew member, wiped away tears as she told how she wrote a note to her mother in case she did not survive.

"There was absolute panic. It was just terrifying, I was just trying to keep people calm. People were white, people were crying, screaming," she told BBC television on her return to England.

Ennio Aquilino, a fire brigade chief who was one of the first on the scene and still bore the scars from a fall during the rescue operation as he saved a French woman, said it had been "an apocalyptic scene."