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Concordia Is at ‘High Risk’ of Sinking, Italian Minister Says

Italys Search for Missing Concordia Passengers, Crew Resume
Italian Firefighters prepare to approach the cruise ship Costa Concordia on the Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Thursday, Jan. 19. Photographer: Gregorio Borgia/AP

The Costa Concordia cruise ship that ran aground on Italy’s Giglio island is at “high risk” of sinking, threatening Europe’s biggest marine park as a storm heads toward the area.

“It very much depends on the change in weather conditions,” Environment Minister Corrado Clini said yesterday in Parliament in Rome. The government plans to declare a state of emergency for the area at a Cabinet meeting today, as well as approve a measure that would restrict cruise ships from access to sensitive coastal regions.

Italy’s Civil Protection Agency yesterday issued a weather warning for possible storms on the western coast of Italy, including Giglio, according to a statement on its website.

Clini said there is a risk that the 290-meter (951 feet) long ship, which is lying in an unsteady position, will slip off an underwater ledge and sink into a 70-meter-deep trough, threatening to rupture fuel tanks. Efforts to find more than 20 missing passengers and crew of Carnival Corp.’s Concordia cruise ship resumed yesterday as two of the confirmed 11 deaths were identified as French passengers.

Carnival’s Italian unit, Costa Crociere SpA, has hired Smit Salvage, a unit of Royal Boskalis Westminster NV, to remove 500,000 gallons of fuel from the crippled cruise liner. The company will need two to four weeks to take the fuel off the ship, executives said on a conference call Jan. 17.

Fuel-removal operations haven’t started because the company wants to do a complete underwater inspection first and is waiting for approval from Italian authorities to proceed, said Martin Schuttevaer, director of investor relations for Royal Boskalis.

Marine Sanctuary

The ship is lying on its side off Giglio, an island of 1,500 inhabitants in winter who survive on fishing and tourism, located about 14 miles from the Tuscan coast. Giglio lies within the Santuario dei Cetacei, an area of roughly 87,500 square kilometers that in 1999 was declared by the governments of France, Italy and Monaco as a sanctuary for marine mammals such as dolphins and whales.

So far, there’s only been a small oil leak from a damaged lifeboat, Corrado Passera, Italy’s economic development and infrastructure minister, said at the Senate in Rome yesterday.

The search team returned to the area at 6 a.m. local time yesterday after the rescue operation was temporarily halted when ship movements were detected. Rescue divers discovered five bodies on Jan. 17.

Coastal Reef

The vessel struck a reef near Giglio on Jan. 13 after the captain deviated from the planned route to sail close to the island, hours after the vessel left a port near Rome with 4,200 passengers and crew for a Mediterranean cruise.

The captain, Francesco Schettino, was placed under house arrest on Jan. 17 for allegedly causing the shipwreck and abandoning the ship, court documents show. Costa Crociere has suspended the captain, Marco De Luca, a lawyer for the company, said in an interview on SkyTG24 television.

Schettino didn’t abandon the ship, his lawyer Bruno Leporatti has said, and his actions saved many lives, according to a Jan. 16 statement from the attorney. The captain said he didn’t leave the Concordia intentionally, according to the court documents.

Schettino failed to promptly inform the Coast Guard after he struck the rocks that ripped a hole in the ship’s hull and is accused by prosecutors of abandoning the vessel with about 300 people still aboard, Judge Valeria Montesarchio said in her Jan. 16 decision to place him under house arrest.

Schettino was repeatedly ordered by a senior Coast Guard official to return to the ship. The captain said there was no way to get back onboard, according to a recording of the conversations, which has been verified by the Coast Guard.

‘Blackout Problem’

Recorded conversations between Schettino and Coast Guard officials broadcast by SkyTG24 showed the captain initially played down the accident, insisting 30 minutes after the Concordia hit rocks, and started taking in water, that it was only a “blackout problem.”

Judge Montesarchio rejected a prosecutor request for the captain to remain in jail, saying that while the commander had hesitated in giving the evacuation order, he was not a flight risk. Prosecutors plan to appeal the judge’s decision to grant house arrest.

Schettino gave the evacuation order more than an hour after the ship hit the rocks, delaying rescue operations, according to the court document. The captain said he made an emergency maneuver after hitting the rocks to prevent the ship from heading out to sea and sinking, according to the judge’s written decision.

Carnival, the world’s largest cruise operator, said in a statement yesterday that it has begun refunding passengers and that it’s arranging lodging, transportation and counseling for passengers and crew.

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