ROME – Salvage experts can begin pumping fuel from a capsized cruise ship as early as Tuesday to avert a possible environmental catastrophe and the ship is stable enough that search efforts for the missing can continue, Italian officials said.
The decision to carry out both operations in tandem was made after instrument readings determined that the Costa Concordia was not at risk of sliding into deeper waters, Franco Gabrielli, chief of the national civil protection agency, told reporters Monday.
“The ship is stable. … There is no problem or danger that it is about to drop onto much lower seabed,” Gabrielli said on the island of Giglio.
The Concordia rammed a reef Jan. 13 on the tiny Tuscan island and capsized a few hours later just outside Giglio’s port as it was carrying 4,200 passengers and crew on a Mediterranean cruise.
Taking advantage of calm seas, divers on Monday found the bodies of two women near the ship’s Internet cafe, raising to 15 the number of confirmed dead.
As of Monday night, 10 days after the accident, 17 people were still unaccounted for. Gabrielli’s office said earlier reports that an unregistered Hungarian woman had called friends from the ship before it flipped over turned out to be “groundless.”
The ship’s Italian captain, Francesco Schettino is under house arrest near Naples as prosecutors investigate him for suspected manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his vessel while some people were still aboard. He has insisted that he was co-ordinating rescue operations from a lifeboat and then from shore.
Costa Crociere SpA has distanced itself from the captain, contending that he made an unauthorized deviation from the ship’s programmed route. Schettino, however, has reportedly told investigators that Costa officials had requested that he sail close to Giglio in a publicity move.
Schettino’s lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, told reporters Monday that tests on urine and hair samples showed that his client had not been under the influence of alcohol or drugs before the crash. Prosecutors could not confirm the report, since they cannot speak about the investigation while it is still under way.
Despite earlier fears, officials said the crippled cruise ship, with a 70-meter (230-foot) long gash in its hull, is not expected to roll off its rocky seabed perch and be swallowed by the sea.
An Italian geologist, on Giglio to monitor the Concordia, told Sky TG24 Monday the ship was barely moving.
“It is moving at the rate of about one or two millimeters an hour,” said Nicola Casagli, adding the ship has moved up to 3mm an hour when tides come in or out. “The ship responds to the tides.”
The sea has been calm for several days but he said waves were expected to grow in the next few days.
In all, seven bodies await identification, but Gabrielli said officials have DNA from the relatives of all of the missing passengers and are working to confirm their names. He said the search for bodies would continue “as long as it is possible to inspect whatever can be inspected.”
Meanwhile, Italian Admiral Ilarione dell’Anna said the fuel removal could begin as early as Tuesday, addressing growing concern among residents and environmentalists that the heavy, tar-like fuel could leak from the ship’s 17 double-bottomed tanks.
“They should start the oil drainage operations on the ship. At this point those who died will not come back to life. Even if they pull them out later, unfortunately it won’t make a difference,” Andrea Ginanneschi, a resident of Giglio, told The Associated Press.
Dell’Anna predicted it would take 28 days to remove all of the fuel. Officials said the first tank to be emptied will be one above the waterline.
Eight kilometres (five miles) of oil barriers, including absorbent ones, have been laid in the area to protect marine life and the coast in the pristine waters, which are prime fishing grounds and a protected area for dolphins and whales.
Recovery experts from the Dutch salvage company Smit have previously said they will create holes in the top and the bottom of each tank, heating the fuel so it flows more easily and pumping from the top while forcing air in from the bottom. For the underwater tanks, sea water will be used to displace the fuel, which becomes thick and gooey when cooled.
Already, some diesel and lubricants have leaked into the water near the ship, probably from machinery on board. Officials have characterized the contamination as superficial.
“Smit has been ready for a week to begin pumping fuel from the tanks, awaiting only the go- ahead,” said a company statement. “For this purpose, SMIT has mobilized an oil tanker with emergency response equipment including sweeping arms, booms and a skimmer.”
It said the vessel arrived on Monday.
The company also said Italian authorities have indicated it can begin the removal once a second absorbent boom is in place around the ship.
Besides 2,200 metric tons of heavier fuel, there also are 185 metric tons of diesel and lubricants on board and chemicals including cleaning products and chlorine.
Barry reported from Milan. Andrea Foa reported from Giglio.