COSTA CONCORDIA Sunday Night Update: Rescue Efforts Continue

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January 16, 2012

Rescue operations continued on Sunday inside the cruise ship that ran aground off the shore of Tuscany, Italy late Friday, triggering a confused evacuation of thousands of passengers in which five people died.

The number of unaccounted people dropped significantly as Italian authorities discovered more passengers who had made it to shore safely, checking their names off the ship’s passenger and crew lists. Rescuers also plucked more survivors from inside the ship, including an Italian crew member, recovered early Sunday, and two South Korean nationals on Saturday. Italian officials said 15 people remained missing.

The South Korean survivors, identified by rescue workers as a couple on their honeymoon, were found closed inside one of the ship’s cabins. Prato’s fire commander, Vincenzo Bennardo, said rescuers who had been banging on doors of the ship cabins all night finally heard a reply from one of the rooms early Sunday, the Associated Press reported. He said the two, about 29 years old, were in good condition, the AP reported.

Italian prosecutors and coast guard, meanwhile, are investigating what caused the cruise ship to run aground off the Tuscan shore, triggering what many passengers described as a disorderly evacuation.

A spokeswoman for the Italian coast guard on Saturday said the Costa Concordia’s captain, Francesco Schettino, had been detained for questioning by police and coast guard officials. Schettino has said the rock formation hit by the ship Friday night off the small island of Giglio wasn’t marked on nautical maps, according to the coast guard spokeswoman. Schettino, who hasn’t been charged, was being held in a prison in the town of Grosseto and couldn’t be reached for comment.

A lawyer for the captain didn’t immediately respond to a written request for comment.

Three bodies were recovered from the sea after the ship with 4,234 people aboard struck the rock formation, tearing a 160-foot gash in the hull that sent water gushing into the ship.

Local officials said two more bodies had been found inside the ship on Sunday, but offered no details on the victims.

Passengers who survived the ordeal recounted that the ship’s crew was slow to evacuate the ship, sowing panic throughout the boat as it began to twist sideways in the water, upending its decks.

Angel Morales, 53 years old, was seated at dinner with his wife when the boat struck the rock. Glasses and plates slid off the tables as the boat tilted. “Waiters were picking them up as if it was nothing,” he said. “They kept saying that it was nothing, that it was an electrical problem.”

Video taken by passengers showed a passive crew struggling to give instructions on how to evacuate the boat as the situation deteriorated and power outages ensued. As a result, the boat was listing too severely by the time the crew moved to lower the lifeboats, according to the coast guard. By the time helicopters and private boats rushed to the scene, people were leaping off the ship decks into dark cold waters.

Italian authorities late Saturday recovered the ship’s black-box recorder, but it is too soon to say what, if anything, it may reveal about the accident.

Antonio Belardo, a local official, said the ship deviated from its “usual” route in order to give passengers a view of Giglio’s port. That meant navigating a strait, so that the ship could skirt a stretch of the small island’s coastline that faces mainland Italy.

Gianni Onorato, managing director of Carnival Corp.’s (CCL) Costa Cruises, which operated the ship, told reporters on Saturday that the course taken by the ship Friday evening was “not a defined route for passing Giglio.” However, Onorato said it would be “incorrect to say the ship was off course,” adding that he was unaware of all of the possible routes available to the captain at the time.

“It’s difficult to say at this moment what happened,” Onorato said, adding that the company was cooperating with authorities to “shed light on the causes of this tragedy that is unprecedented in our 64-year history.”

Italian media reported that the boat hit a grouping of rocks known as Le Scole, about a half-mile off the coast of Giglio.

The Costa Concordia ship was lying basically flat off the coast of the tiny island of Giglio, its starboard side submerged in the water and the huge gash showing clearly on its upturned hull.

The AP reported that one of the victims was a Peruvian crew member, a diplomat from the South American country said, adding that a Peruvian woman was also missing. A French Foreign Ministry official confirmed that two of the bodies were Frenchmen, both tourists, the AP reported.

Some 30 people were reported injured, most of them suffering only bruises, but at least two people were reported to be in grave condition. Several passengers came off the ferries on stretchers, but it appeared more out of exhaustion and shock than serious injury.

Carnival didn’t address the passengers’ allegations in a statement it issued. “Our hearts go out to everyone affected by the grounding of the Costa Concordia and especially the loved ones of those who lost their lives. They will remain in our thoughts and prayers in the wake of this tragic event.”

By Stacy Meichtry – (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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