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Environmental fears grow in Italian shipwreck

Toll stands at 6; officials watch for fuel leaks

Laura Lezza/Getty Images

Choppy waters shifted the Costa Concordia in Giglio Porto, Italy, temporarily halting the search for the 29 people still missing.

ROME - Italy’s cruise liner tragedy turned into a potential environmental crisis yesterday, as rough seas battering the stricken ship raised fears that fuel might leak into pristine waters off Tuscany that are part of a protected sanctuary for dolphins, porpoises, and whales.

The jailed captain lost the support of the vessel’s Italian operator as he battled prosecutors’ assertions that he caused the deadly wreck that killed at least six and left 29 missing.

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Earlier, authorities had said 16 people were missing. But an Italian Coast Guard official, Marco Brusco, said late yesterday that 25 passengers and four crew members were unaccounted for three days after the disaster. He didn’t explain the jump, but indicated 10 of the missing people are Germans.

Two Americans are also among the missing. There were identified by their family as Jerry Heil, 69, and his wife, Barbara, 70, from White Bear Lake, Minn.

At least three families of Italian passengers have said that despite their relatives being listed among those safely evacuated, they hadn’t heard from them.

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There still is “a glimmer of hope’’ that there could be survivors on parts of the vast Costa Concordia that have not been searched by rescuers, Brusco said. A search of the above-water portion of the ship yielded another survivor - a crewman who had broken his leg - on Sunday.

Waters that had remained calm for the first three days of the rescue turned choppy yesterday, shifting the wreckage of the Costa Concordia and temporarily suspending divers’ searches for survivors. A search for bodies was suspended overnight.

Italy’s environmental minister raised the alarm about a potential environmental catastrophe if any of the 500,000 gallons of fuel begins to leak into the waters off Giglio that are popular with scuba divers and form part of the protected Tuscan archipelago.

“At the moment there haven’t been any fuel leaks, but we have to intervene quickly to avoid an environmental disaster,’’ Corrado Clini told RAI state radio.

Even before the accident, there had been mounting calls from environmentalists to restrict passage of large ships in the area. The ship’s operator, Costa Crociere SpA, has enlisted Smit of Rotterdam, one of the world’s biggest salvagers, to handle the removal of the 1,000-foot cruise liner.

A study could come as early as today on how to extract the fuel safely.

The Italian cruise operator said Captain Francesco Schettino intentionally strayed from the ship’s authorized, computer-programmed course into waters too close to a perilous reef, causing it to crash late Friday off the tiny island of Giglio. The ship was carrying about 4,200 passengers and crew.

The navigational version of a “fly by’’ was apparently made as a favor to the chief waiter who is from Giglio and whose parents live on the island, local media reported.

A judge today will decide whether Schettino should remain jailed. “We are struck by the unscrupulousness of the reckless maneuver that the commander of the Costa Concordia made near the island of Giglio,’’ prosecutor Francesco Verusio told reporters.

The head of the UN agency on maritime safety said lessons must be learned from the Concordia disaster 100 years after the Titanic struck an iceberg, leading to the first international convention on sea safety.

“We should . . ., if necessary, reexamine the regulations on the safety of large passenger ships in the light of the findings of the casualty investigation,’’ said Koji Sekimizu, secretary general of the International Maritime Organization.

Miami-based Carnival Corp., which owns Costa, estimated that preliminary losses from having the Concordia out of operation for at least through 2012 would be between $85 million and $95 million, though it said there would be other costs as well.

Pier Luigi Foschi, Costa Crociere chairman and chief executive, said Schettino’s actions broke all rules and regulations.

At a news conference in Genoa, the company’s home base, Foschi said Costa ships have their routes programmed, and alarms go off when they deviate. Those alarms are disabled if the ship’s course is manually altered, he said.

“This route was put in correctly upon departure from Civitavecchia,’’ Foschi said, referring to the port outside Rome. “The fact that it left from this course is due solely to a maneuver by the commander that was unapproved, unauthorized, and unknown to Costa.’’

Foschi said only once before had the company approved a “fly by’’ of this sort off Giglio - last year on the night of Aug. 9-10.

In that case, the port and company had approved it.

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