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Officials: 29 people missing from Italian ship

By Francis D'Emilio and Nicole Winfield

Associated Press

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 12:15 p.m. HST, Jan 16, 2012


ROME >> Italian coast guard officials say the number of people missing from the shipwrecked Costa Concordia cruise liner has risen to 29, including two Americans.

A top coast guard official, Marco Brusco, said on state TV that 25 passengers and four crew members are unaccounted for three days after the ship crashed into a reef off the Tuscan coast and capsized.

Earlier in the day that number stood at 16.

Brusco didn't immediately explain the rise.

But at least three Italian families have said that even though their loved ones have been listed among those safely evacuated, they hadn't heard any word from their relatives.

Brusco indicated about 10 Germans were among the 29 missing. He said he holds a "glimmer of hope" that some of the missing might have survived.

The two missing Americans were identified by their family as Jerry Heil, 69, and his wife Barbara, 70, from White Bear Lake, Minnesota.

The couple are devout Catholics who spent part of almost every day at church, where he taught religious classes and she made baked goods and other sweet treats for parishioners, friends said.

Diane Vorland, who is confined to a wheelchair, told The Associated Press that Jerry Heil, 69, came to her house every Thursday for the past three years to administer her communion and recite the rosary. The trip, she said, "was a big deal for them."

"On the Thursday before he left, he said, 'The next time you see me I'll have been to Rome,'" Vorland said. 

Sarah Heil, their daughter, told WBBM radio in Chicago that her parents had been looking forward to their 16-day vacation.

"They raised four kids and sent them all to private school, elementary to college, so they never had any money," Sarah Heil said. "So when they retired, they went traveling. And this was to be a big deal — a 16-day trip. They were really excited about it."

Meanwhile, environmental concerns deepened Monday, as rough seas battering the stricken mega-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 ship's jailed captain lost the support of his Italian employer as he battled prosecutors' claims that he caused the deadly wreck and abandoned a sinking ship before its 4,200 passengers and crew had been evacuated.

Waters that had remained calm for the first three days of the rescue turned choppy Monday, shifting the wreckage of the Costa Concordia a few inches and suspending divers' searches for the 16 people still unaccounted for. At least six people were killed in the disaster.

Italy's environmental minister raised the alarm about a potential environmental catastrophe if any of the 500,000 gallons (2,300 tons) of fuel begins to leak into the pristine waters off Giglio, which 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, Netherlands, 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 Tuesday on how to extract the fuel safely.

Smit has a long track record of dealing with wrecks and leaks, including refloating grounded bulk carriers and securing drilling platforms in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A spokesman for Smit did not immediately return calls seeking comment on the Concordia salvage.

The Italian cruise operator said Capt. Francesco Schettino made an unauthorized deviation that caused the ship to crash late Friday into a reef off the tiny island of Giglio and capsize a few miles away near port.

The navigational "fly by" of Giglio 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 on Tuesday is to 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. "It was inexcusable."

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

"We should seriously consider the lessons to be learnt and, if necessary, re-examine 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.

Costa owner Carnival Corp. 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. The company's share price slumped more than 16 percent Monday.

Costa Crociere chairman and CEO Pier Luigi Foschi said the company would provide Schettino with legal assistance, but he disassociated Costa from his behavior, saying it broke all rules and regulations.

"Capt. Schettino took an initiative of his own will which is contrary to our written rules of conduct," Foschi said in his first public comments since the grounding.

At a news conference in Genoa, the company's home base, Foschi said that 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.

Residents, however, said such displays have occurred several times in the past, though always in the summer when the island is full of tourists.

Foschi didn't respond directly to prosecutors' and passengers' accusations that Schettino abandoned ship before all passengers had been evacuated, but he suggested his conduct wasn't as bad in the hours of the evacuation as has been portrayed. He didn't elaborate.

The Italian coast guard says Schettino defied their entreaties for him to return to his ship as the chaotic evacuation of the 4,200 people aboard was in full progress. After the ship's tilt put many life rafts out of service, helicopters had to pluck to safety dozens of people remaining aboard, hours after Schettino was seen leaving the vessel.

The captain has insisted in an interview before his jailing that he stayed with the vessel to the end.

Foschi defended the conduct of the crew, while acknowledging that passengers had described a chaotic evacuation where crew members consistently downplayed the seriousness of the situation as the ship lurched to the side.

"All our crew members behaved like heroes. All of them," he said.

He noted that 4,200 people managed to evacuate a lilting ship at night within two hours. In addition, the ship's evacuation procedures had been reviewed last November by an outside firm and port authorities and no faults were found, he said.

Once on land, the survivors complained that Costa was stingy with assistance.

Blake Miller, on board to celebrate his partner's 50th birthday, said Costa representatives rebuffed his efforts to get some reimbursement so he could buy a change of clothing.

"The Costa representative at our hotel told me, 'you might want to get a lawyer when you get back to the States,'" to pursue reimbursement, Miller told The Associated Press from his hotel in Rome Sunday night, where he was staying at his own expense.

Only passengers who had paid for special insurance to cover lost belongings would receive compensation to buy replacements, he said they were told.

Costa Crociere didn't immediately respond to a phone message or an emailed request for a response.

Miller, from Austin, Texas, said survivors were taken to a hotel near Rome's airport and told Costa would pay for one night's stay and their plane fare home only "if we pack up and leave the country" on Sunday morning.

Miller, who is director of business travel for Intercontinental hotels, said Costa representatives spoke to passengers about potential refunds or free cruise vouchers. But besides what he paid for the cruise, he said he paid several hundred more euros (dollars) for excursions during port calls and drinks on board.

Foschi, the Costa CEO, said he was certain "we'll be able to find a material solution that will make them happy."

Class action suits are a rare novelty in Italy, but Italian consumer advocacy organization Codacons said more than 70 passengers had indicated that they wanted to join a class-action approach to winning compensation from Costa.

"Our aim is to make every passenger obtain an indemnity of at least euro10,000 (more than $12,500) for the material damage suffered and for moral damage, such as the terror suffered, ruined vacations and the grave risks that they ran," said Codacons president Carlo Rienzi.






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