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Search of crippled Italian cruise ship temporarily suspended

January 18, 2012 |  7:25 am

REPORTING FROM ROME -- The search of the wrecked hull of the Costa Concordia by divers and rescue experts was suspended temporarily Wednesday after sensor equipment detected a slight shift of the cruise ship’s position.

Authorities said that the safety of the search teams could not be risked until greater stability of the ship on its rocky perch could be guaranteed.

Rescue crews, including scuba divers and search dogs, have so far recovered 11 victims of the Friday night disaster that grounded the giant luxury liner on the rocky shore of the Tuscan island of Giglio.

PHOTOS: Cruise ship disaster

The number of people still unaccounted for varied Wednesday from 22 to 24. Five bodies were pulled from the submerged part of the ship Tuesday.

Coast guard authorities said the suspension of rescue activities did not indicate they were giving up on the possibility of finding any survivors, but there was little doubt that the search was focused primarily on locating bodies still trapped in the half-submerged vessel.

The ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, 52, remained under house arrest after being released from jail Tuesday by a judge who confirmed prosecutors' claims that the captain was responsible for the fatal accident. Judge Valeria Montesarchio, while noting that Schettino had acted with “serious lack of skill, carelessness and negligence," did not believe there was danger that he would flee, according to court papers.

Montesarchio wrote that Schettino had abandoned the ship with at least 300 people “unable to take care of themselves” still on board, a reference, according to Italian media, to children, the elderly and disabled people.

According to Italian newspapers, Schettino told the judge that he had fallen into a lifeboat by accident while helping passengers evacuate, and that once off the ship he was unable to return.

A much-publicized recorded telephone call released Tuesday revealed an angry, incredulous coast guard officer repeatedly ordering, in vain, the captain back to the ship to take control of the rescue operation.

The court documents show that Schettino admitted having made an error in the maneuver that brought the ship within 150 yards of the coast, but that he was convinced that he had saved lives by steering the crippled vessel even closer to shore to aid evacuation and rescue efforts.

Facebook, Twitter and other social networks were ferocious Wednesday in their criticism of Schettino and praised Gregorio De Falco, the coast guard officer, as a hero.

Bad weather predicted for Thursday will likely further hamper the already extremely dangerous search efforts. The big waves forecast also increase the danger of the ship shifting, raising more questions about the stability of cisterns that hold about 2,300 tons of fuel.

Max Iguera, the Italian representative of the Dutch oil recovery company Smit, told Italian television that operations to empty the ship of its fuel should begin within the next few days, a process that could take anywhere from two to six weeks.

In the meantime, the ship was surrounded by floating anti-pollution devices should fuel begin to leak.


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Photo: Waves crash against rocks as the cruise ship Costa Concordia leans on its side off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, on Wednesday. Credit: Gregorio Borgia / Associated Press