Three dead, 40 missing in Italian ship disaster

Reuters , Sunday 15 Jan 2012

Fire fighters reached two people alive on the stricken Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, after they made voice contact with the couple earlier and found them in a cabin

Costa Concordia
A Carabinieri boat approaches the luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia that ran aground the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012. (Photo: AP)

Italian rescue workers were searching for nearly 40 people still missing early on Sunday, more than a day after a cruise ship with more than 4,000 on board capsized off Italy's west coast, killing at least three people and injuring 70.

Just after dawn on Sunday, rescue workers made voice contact with another person trapped in the Costa Concordia. "We are doing the impossible to reach this person," Coast Guard spokesman Lucinao Nicastro told Italian television.

After midnight, rescue workers had found two people, both South Koreans, still alive in a cabin after making voice contact with them from several decks above and brought them ashore.

The captain of the luxury 114,500-tonne ship is being held in jail on charges of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship, Italian police said.

Passengers, some saying it felt like a repeat of the Titanic disaster, spoke of people leaping into the sea and fighting over lifejackets in panic when the ship hit a rock late Friday and ran aground near the island of Giglio.

Two French tourists and a Peruvian crew member are dead and 38 people are still unaccounted for.

The vast hulk of the 290-metre long cruise ship, resting half-submerged on its side, loomed over the little port of Giglio, a picturesque island in a maritime nature reserve off the Tuscan coast. A large gash was visible on its side.

Rescue workers, including specialist diving teams, were working their way through more than 2,000 cabins on the vast ship, a floating resort that boasted a huge spa and seven restaurants as well as bars, cinemas and discotheques.

As the search continued, there was a growing demand for answers over why the vessel had come so close to the shore and bitter complaints about how long it had taken to evacuate the terrified passengers after the ship ran aground late on Friday.

After the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, was arrested on Saturday night for questioning, the investigation could be extended, state prosecutor Francesco Verusio said.

"We are investigating the possible responsibility of other people who could be responsible for such a dangerous manoeuvre," he told SkyTG24 television. "The command systems did not function as they should have."

There were fears the death toll could rise after considerable confusion on Saturday over the number of missing passengers.

Magistrates said Schettino, whose ship was carrying 4,229 passengers and crew, abandoned the vessel before all the passengers were taken off.

The vessel's operator, Costa Crociere, a unit of Carnival Corp & Plc., the world's largest cruise company, said the Costa Concordia had been sailing on its regular course when it struck a submerged rock.

In a television interview, Schettino said the rock was not marked on any maritime charts of the area.

Costa Cruises president Gianni Ororato said the captain "performed a manoeuvre intended to protect both guests and crew" but it was "complicated by a sudden tilting of the ship."

"We'll be able to say at the end of the investigation. It would be premature to speculate on this," said coastguard spokesman Filippo Marini.

After a night-time operation on Friday and Saturday involving helicopters, ships and lifeboats, many passengers had were taken to Rome Airport for flights home.

Passengers had just sat down to dinner, a few hours after leaving the port of Civitavecchia near Rome on a week-long cruise to Barcelona and Majorca, when a loud bang interrupted the piano player and the ship began to list.

"We heard a loud rumble, the glasses and plates fell from the tables, the ship tilted and the lights went off," said passenger Luciano Castro.

"What followed were scenes of panic, people screaming, running around the place. Close to us a five-month pregnant young woman was crying and panicking."

The ship was carrying mainly Italian passengers, but also many foreigners including British, Germans, French, Spanish and Americans. Many were elderly and some were in wheelchairs.

It also became more difficult for the lifeboats to be lowered the more the ship listed.

"We thought we wouldn't make it. I saw the lighthouse but I knew I couldn't swim that far but lots of people threw themselves into the sea. I think they are some of the dead."

Passengers said they had been given little or no information in the immediate aftermath of the ship running aground.

"After approximately 20 minutes a voice told us there was a problem with the electricity that they were trying to fix," said Luciano Castro.

"The ship continued to tilt further, after 15 minutes they said again it was a problem with the electricity, but no one believed it," he said.

"Of course panic makes things worse and the crew members struggled in calming down the most active and worried passengers."

Local officials expressed concern that the fuel on the ship, at full load as it had just begun the cruise, could spill into the pristine waters. However, by early Sunday, there was no sign of any pollution damage.

The ship was involved in an accident on 22 November, 2008 when it hit a port wall and was damaged while docking.

The ship was built in 2004-2005 at a cost of 450 million Euros at the Fincantieri Sestri shipyard in Italy.


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