Italian rescuers were forced to suspend operations on the stricken Costa Concordia luxury liner on Friday a week after a Mediterranean tragedy in which up to 32 people are feared to have died.
“Rescue workers were on the ship during the night. When it moved, the search was immediately suspended,” Filippo Marini, a coastguard spokesman, told reporters at the scene of the disaster on Giglio Island off the Tuscan coast.
“Now there is a meeting between emergency services to decide how to proceed,” he said, adding that one of the proposals at the meeting was to attach the ship to the mainland using cables to prevent it moving again.
Officials are afraid the giant 17-deck ship could slip off a rocky ledge on which it is resting on its side and sink entirely.
Choppy seas have increased this concern further, with coastguard spokesman Cosimo Nicastro saying: “The conditions are dangerous.”
As the weather deteriorated on Thursday, emergency crews attached rope ladders to the exposed side of the ship to ease access to the vessel.
The forecast for later Friday was for waves of up to 1.5 metres (five feet), which would make access to the boat by dinghy more dangerous.
Environmentalists and local residents of this pristine nature reserve and marine sanctuary are afraid that there could be a spill from the ship’s tanks filled with 2,380 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 200 tonnes of diesel.
Dutch company Smit Salvage is ready to pump out the fuel in what is known as a “hot-tapping” operation but officials say the search on the ship would have to be suspended for them to do so as it could affect the vessel’s stability.
“We’re ready to begin the operation. We were ready yesterday but we’re still waiting for the green light from the authorities. Now we’re just fine-tuning the instruments,” Smit representative on the island Rene Robben told AFP.
Eleven people have been confirmed dead in the tragedy including four French nationals, one Italian and one Spaniard among the passengers and two crew members — a Peruvian waiter and a Hungarian man, who was a violinist on board.
Three of the bodies recovered have not yet been identified.
Relatives of the 21 people still missing have travelled to Giglio and to towns in the mainland like Orbetello and Porto Santo Stefano, clinging to the hope that their loved ones may somehow have survived the tragedy.
At a meeting later Friday the Italian cabinet was to adopt measures for stricter regulation of shipping routes, after reports that the Costa Concordia veered wildly off route in a show-off manoeuvre to file past the island.
It was also expected to declare a state of emergency in the area, a formal measure to ease large-scale salvage operations as well as to contain any possible environmental damage — which is so far believed to be minimal.
The head of the vessel’s owner, Costa Cruises, meanwhile said in an interview with Corriere della Sera daily published Friday that the captain had warned the company too late of the scale of the disaster.
Pier Luigi Foschi said the first call from Francesco Schettino to Costa came at 10:05 pm (2105 GMT) — almost half an hour after the ship hit rocks.
The announcement to evacuate the ship came 68 minutes after that call.
“This hour and more of delay is not normal. It’s unjustified,” Foschi said, adding: “I can’t sleep at night. … If the ship had been abandoned earlier we wouldn’t have lost human lives.”
Of Schettino he said: “He has always been considered very able on a technical level … but he could have some small problems with his character even if nothing emerged on a formal level.”
“He was seen as a bit hard on his colleagues. He liked to show off.”
Foschi said he realised the scale of the disaster “only when the evacuation signal was issued.”
“Personally I think (Schettino) wasn’t honest with us,” he said.
“I think he was in an emotionally altered state. He was watching his creature, his ship, sinking in front of him,” he added.
Foschi also stressed however that Schettino was acting on his own initiative by steering towards Giglio “without us being informed.”
Schettino is under house arrest and faces charges of multiple manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing a shipwreck.
For the future, the Costa boss said the company would install the same alerts on land as on the ship to be warned if the vessel was steering off course and would increase the powers of the company to overrule captains.
He added: “Something like this will never happen again. Never again.”