GIGLIO, Italy (Reuters) - A stricken Italian cruise liner shifted on its rocky resting place on Monday as worsening weather disrupted an increasingly despairing hunt for survivors and authorities raised their estimate of the number missing to 29 people.
As the Costa Concordia’s owners blamed their captain for veering shorewards on Friday in a bravura “salute” to residents of a Tuscan island, the giant ship slid a little, threatening to plunge its whole gigantic carcass and 2,300 tonnes of fuel below the Mediterranean waters of the surrounding nature reserve.
The slippage forced rescuers to suspend for a few hours their efforts to find anyone still alive after three days in the capsized hull, resting on a jagged slope outside the picturesque harbour on the island of Giglio. Six bodies have been found. Most of the 4,200 passengers and crew survived, despite hours of chaos.
An Italian coastguard official told Reuters late on Monday that the number of people missing had been revised up to 29 - 25 passengers and four members of staff - from 16, showing how much uncertainty still surrounded the disaster.
Another maritime official said later that 10 Germans were thought to be among the missing passengers.
The 114,500-tonne ship, one of the biggest passenger vessels ever to be wrecked, foundered after striking a rock just as dinner was being served on Friday night. It quickly rolled on its side, revealing a long gouge below the waterline.
Firefighters’ spokesman Luca Cari said there were still small movements of the vessel but they were not considered dangerous. However, searches were suspended overnight and would resume at daybreak.
Another senior firefighter, Luciano Roncalli, told Reuters that all the unsubmerged areas of the liner had been searched, indicating faint hopes of finding more survivors in the flooded and upturned maze of luxurious state rooms and tennis courts, bars and spas that are now submerged beneath the sea.
Environment Minister Corrado Clini said he would declare a state of emergency because of the risk that the ship’s fuel would leak into the pristine Tuscan Archipelago National Park. No fuel spillage has been detected so far, he said on an Italian television show due to air on Monday evening.
Should rougher seas dislodge the wreck and cause it to sink or break up, that could scupper any hopes for the owners, a unit of Florida’s Carnival Corp., of salvaging a liner which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build just six years ago.
Investigators say the ship was far too close to the shore and its owners, Costa Cruises, said the captain, who has been arrested, had carried out the rash manoeuvre to “make a bow” to people on the island, who included a retired Italian admiral.
The skipper denies charges of manslaughter and his lawyer has said his actions saved many lives.
The father of the ship’s head waiter told Reuters his son had telephoned him before the accident to say the crew would salute him by blowing the ship’s whistle as they passed close by Giglio, where both the waiter, Antonello Tievoli, and his 82-year-old father Giuseppe live.
“The ship obviously came too close,” the elder Tievoli said. “I don’t know if Antonello asked the captain to come near, but the responsibility is always the captain’s.”
The captain, Francesco Schettino, was arrested on Saturday. He is accused of manslaughter and abandoning his ship before all those on board were evacuated. Prosecutors say he also refused to go back on board when requested by the coastguard.
Costa Cruises chief executive Pier Luigi Foschi on Monday blamed errors by Schettino for the disaster. He told a news conference the company would provide its captain with any assistance he required. “But we need to acknowledge the facts and we cannot deny human error,” he added.
“These ships are ultra-safe. It is an exceptional event, which was unforeseeable,” he said, fighting back tears.
He said the ship deviated from its correct route and Schettino had contravened safety procedures. “The company disavows such behaviour, which caused the accident,” he said.
Foschi said company vessels were forbidden to come closer than 500 metres to the Giglio coast. Investigators say the liner, designed as a floating pleasure palace for over 3,000 paying customers, was about 150 metres (yards) offshore when it hit the rocks that tore a long gash in its thousand-foot hull.
Schettino denies being too close to the coast and says the rock he hit was not marked on charts.
His lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, issued a statement saying Schettino was “broken-up, troubled and saddened by the loss of life.” But he believed he had saved many lives by carrying out a difficult emergency manoeuvre with anchors after the accident, which turned the ship closer to the shore.
Foschi denied allegations passengers had not been trained how to evacuate the ship, where there were scenes of chaos and panic after the collision. There were around 1,020 crew from 38 nations on board but many were entertainers or catering staff rather than seasoned mariners.
Foschi called the crew “heroes” and said they had responded properly.
“We had to evacuate over 4,200 people in difficult circumstances so the entire operation took more than two hours. The reason for this is the listing of the ship which did not enable us to use both sides to evacuate people.”
The calm weather which since Friday has aided the search of the wreck, by some estimates the biggest passenger vessel ever to founder, took a turn for the worse with rougher seas and a light drizzle falling. Forecasters said it would get worse.
A salvage expert on Giglio, who asked not to be named, told Reuters the ship was clearly moving after being held in place by sharp points of rock that had pierced the hull. Rougher seas could break it free, which would be a “big problem,” he said.
The ship is resting in about 20 metres (60 feet) of water but could sink up to a further 130 metres if it became detached from the rocks.
Cari of the fire brigade said the rescuers could hear no noises from possible survivors inside the half-submerged ship.
“Obviously the more time passes, the less possibility there is of finding anyone alive,” he said.
The United Nations’ shipping agency, the International Maritime Organization, said it was important not to pre-judge the outcome of an inquiry but said it would examine changes to regulations if these were shown to be necessary.
Recalling the sinking of the 46,000-tonne Titanic in April 1912, IMO Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu said: “In the centenary year of the Titanic, we have once again been reminded of the risks involved in maritime activities.”
The disaster occurred as passengers were sitting down to dinner on Friday night, triggering panic with thousands jostling to get on lifeboats and some leaping into the icy sea.
Passengers say there were long delays in sending an SOS and organising the evacuation of those on board and this had resulted in chaos. More than 60 people were hurt.
Italian passengers told newspapers they used their mobile phones to call the Carabinieri police in the city of Grosseto on the mainland to raise the alarm, while the crew were still insisting to them that there was only an electrical fault.
Three people, a South Korean honeymoon couple and a crewman, were rescued on Sunday and police divers also found the bodies of two elderly men, still wearing life vests. The bodies of two French tourists and a Peruvian crewman were found on Saturday.
Carnival Corp, the ship’s Miami-based parent company, said it estimated the impact on its 2012 earnings for loss of use alone to be around $90 million. Its share price was down around 16 percent on the London market.
Industry experts said the disaster could seriously hit cruise bookings at a key time of the year but the sector would eventually recover.
There was deep anger in Italy about the accident.
In a frontpage editorial for the respected daily Corriere della Sera, Pierluigi Battista wrote: “Italy owes the world, international public opinion, the families of those who lost their lives, those who were injured and those who fortunately remained unhurt, a convincing explanation and the toughest possible sanctions against those responsible for this tragedy.”
Additional reporting by Silvia Ognibene, Silvia Aloisi and Kate Hudson and Catherine Hornby; Writing by Barry Moody, Philip Pullella and James Mackenzie; Editing by Tim Pearce