Ecological fears mount in Italian cruise wreck; number of missing raised to 29

Posted Jan. 16, 2012, at 4:50 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 16, 2012, at 8:23 p.m.
Italian firefighter scuba divers approach the cruise ship Costa Concordia leaning on its side, the day after it ran aground off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012.
Gregorio Borgia | AP
Italian firefighter scuba divers approach the cruise ship Costa Concordia leaning on its side, the day after it ran aground off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012.
Firefighters on a dinghy look at a rock emerging from the side of the luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia, the day after it ran aground off the Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012.
Andrea Sinibaldi | AP
Firefighters on a dinghy look at a rock emerging from the side of the luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia, the day after it ran aground off the Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012.

ROME — Italy’s cruise liner tragedy turned into an environmental crisis Monday, as rough seas battering the stricken mega-ship raised fears that fuel might leak into pristine waters off Tuscany that are part of a protected sanctuary for dolphins, porpoises and whales.

The ship’s Italian operator accused the jailed captain of causing the wreck that left at least six dead and 29 missing, saying he made an “unapproved, unauthorized maneuver” to divert the vessel from its programmed course.

Earlier, authorities had said 16 people were missing. But an Italian Coast Guard official, Marco Brusco, said late Monday that 25 passengers and four crew members were unaccounted for three days after the Costa Concordia struck a reef and capsized off the coast of the tiny island of Giglio.

He didn’t explain the jump, but indicated 10 of the missing are Germans. Two Americans are also among the missing.

Brusco said there was still “a glimmer of hope” there could be survivors on parts of the vast cruise liner that have yet to be searched. The last survivor, a crewman who had broken his leg, was rescued on Sunday.

Waters that had remained calm for the first days of the rescue turned choppy Monday, shifting the wreckage and raising fears that any further movement could cause some of the 500,000 gallons of fuel on board to leak into the waters off Giglio, which are popular with scuba divers and form part of the protected Tuscan archipelago. Rescue operations were suspended for s everal hours because of the rough seas.

Italy’s environmental minister raised the alarm about a potential environmental catastrophe. “At the moment there haven’t been any fuel leaks, but we have to intervene quickly,” the minister, Corrado Clini, told RAI state radio.

Even before the accident there had been mounting calls from environmentalists to restrict passage of large ships in the area.

The ship’s operator, Costa Crociere SpA, has enlisted one of the world’s leading salvagers, Smit of Rotterdam, Netherlands, to handle the removal of the 1,000-foot cruise liner and extract the fuel safely. Smit has a long track record of dealing with wrecks and leaks, including refloating grounded bulk carriers and securing drilling platforms in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Meanwhile, the Italian cruise operator said Capt. Francesco Schettino intentionally strayed from the ship’s authorized course into waters too close to the perilous reef, causing it to crash late Friday and capsize.

The navigational version of a “fly by” was apparently made as a favor to the chief waiter who is from Giglio and whose parents live on the island, local media reported.

A judge on Tuesday is to decide whether Schettino should remain jailed.

“We are struck by the unscrupulousness of the reckless maneuver that the commander of the Costa Concordia made near the island of Giglio,” prosecutor Francesco Verusio told reporters. “It was inexcusable.”

The head of the U.N. agency on maritime safety said lessons must be learned from the Concordia disaster 100 years after the Titanic rammed into an iceberg, leading to the first international convention on sea safety.

“We should seriously consider the lessons to be learned and, if necessary, re-examine the regulations on the safety of large passenger ships in the light of the findings of the casualty investigation,” said Koji Sekimizu, secretary-general of the International Maritime Organization.

Miami-based Carnival Corp., which owns the Italian operator, estimated that preliminary losses from having the Concordia out of operation at least through 2012 would be between $85 million and $95 million, though it said there would be other costs as well. The company’s share price slumped more than 16 percent Monday.

Two of the missing are Americans, identified by their family as Jerry Heil, 69, and his wife Barbara, 70, from White Bear Lake, Minnesota.

Costa Crociere chairman and CEO Pier Luigi Foschi said the company would provide Schettino with legal assistance, but he disassociated Costa from his behavior, saying it broke all rules and regulations.

“Capt. Schettino took an initiative of his own will which is contrary to our written rules of conduct,” Foschi said in his first public comments since the grounding.

At a news conference in Genoa, the company’s home base, Foschi said that Costa ships’ routes are programmed into their navigational systems, and alarms go off when they deviate. Those alarms are disabled if the ship’s course is manually altered, he said.

“This route was put in correctly upon departure from Civitavecchia,” Foschi said, referring to the port outside Rome. “The fact that it left from this course is due solely to a maneuver by the commander that was unapproved, unauthorized and unknown to Costa.”

Foschi said only once before had the company approved a “fly by” of this sort off Giglio — last year on the night of Aug. 9-10. In that case, the port and company had approved it.

Residents, however, said such displays have occurred several times in the past, though always in the summer when the island is full of tourists.

Foschi didn’t respond directly to prosecutors’ and passengers’ accusations that Schettino abandoned ship before all passengers had been evacuated, but he suggested his conduct wasn’t as bad in the hours of the evacuation as has been portrayed. He didn’t elaborate.

The Italian coast guard says Schettino defied their entreaties for him to return to his ship as the chaotic evacuation of the more than 4,200 people aboard was in full progress. After the ship’s tilt put many life rafts out of service, helicopters had to pluck to safety dozens of people remaining aboard, hours after Schettino was seen leaving the vessel.

The captain has insisted in an interview before his jailing that he stayed with the vessel to the end.

Foschi defended the conduct of the crew, while acknowledging that passengers had described a chaotic evacuation where crew members consistently downplayed the seriousness of the situation as the ship lurched to the side.

“All our crew members behaved like heroes. All of them,” he said.

He noted that 4,200 people managed to evacuate a listing ship at night within two hours. In addition, the ship’s evacuation procedures had been reviewed last November by an outside firm and port authorities and no faults were found, he said.

Once on land, the survivors complained that Costa was stingy with assistance.

Blake Miller, who was on the ship to celebrate his partner’s 50th birthday, said Costa representatives rebuffed his efforts to get reimbursement so he could buy a change of clothing.

“The Costa representative at our hotel told me, ‘You might want to get a lawyer when you get back to the States,”’ Miller told The Associated Press from his hotel in Rome, where he was staying at his own expense.

Only passengers who had paid for special insurance to cover lost belongings would receive compensation to buy replacements, he said they were told.

Costa Crociere didn’t immediately respond to a phone message or an emailed request for a response.

Miller, of Austin, Texas, said survivors were taken to a hotel near Rome’s airport and told Costa would pay for a single night’s stay and their plane fare home only “if we pack up and leave the country” Sunday morning.

Miller, who is director of business travel for Intercontinental Hotels, said Costa representatives spoke to passengers about potential refunds or free cruise vouchers. But in addition to the cost of the cruise, he said he had paid hundreds of dollars for excursions during port calls and other expenses.

Foschi, the Costa CEO, said he was certain “we’ll be able to find a material solution that will make them happy.”

Class action suits are rare in Italy, but Italian consumer advocacy organization Codacons said more than 70 passengers had indicated that they wanted to join a class-action approach to winning compensation from Costa.

“Our aim is to make every passenger obtain an indemnity of at least (euro) 10,000 (more than $12,500) for the material damage suffered and for moral damage, such as the terror suffered, ruined vacations and the grave risks that they ran,” said Codacons president Carlo Rienzi.

 

SEE COMMENTS →

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business

Similar Articles