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Rescue Efforts On Italian Cruise May Come To End

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Italian authorities are considering when to call off the search for survivors aboard the wreck of the cruise liner Costa Concordia, the coast guard said Thursday, as rescuers used explosives to blow new holes in the ship in search of victims.

Authorities are mulling when to change the operation from rescue to recovery, coast guard spokesman Cosimo Nicastro said Thursday. Divers continued their search of the wreck into Thursday evening.

At least 11 people are known to have died in the disaster, and 21 are still missing, according to the Italian Crisis Unit.

Coast guard records published Thursday by an Italian newspaper pile further pressure on the captain of the Concordia and his officers, suggesting that the authorities first became aware of the crash from a friend of the mother of a passenger about 15 minutes after the ship hit rocks.

The coast guard identified the ship in trouble and contacted it, asking if there were problems on board, at 10:14 p.m. -- more than half an hour after the 9:41 p.m. collision -- according to a coast guard log published in the newspaper La Repubblica.

The ship responded that it was experiencing a "black out," according to the log, and said the crew believed it could solve the problem in a short time. The log does not indicate which crew member was speaking.

What appears to be the audio of that first radio call between the Costa Concordia and the coast guard was broadcast on Italian media Thursday.

A coast guard official is heard to ask: "What kind of a problem is it? Just something with the generator? The police of Prato have received a phone call from the relatives of a sailor who said that during the dinner everything was falling on his head."

The unidentified crew member responds: "We have a black out and we are checking the conditions on board."

"The passengers say they have been told to put on the life vests, is this correct?" the coast guard then asks, to which the crew member repeats the same answer, before promising to keep the coast guard updated.

Criticism from both Costa Cruises and the authorities has focused so far on Capt. Francesco Schettino, who is under house arrest and facing possible charges of manslaughter, shipwreck and abandoning ship.

Authorities accuse the captain of piloting the ship too fast to allow him to react to dangers, causing the shipwreck, according to legal papers.

Experts are performing toxicology tests on a sample of his hair, prosecutor Francesco Verusio said Thursday.

Verusio is preparing a motion to have Schettino sent back to jail from house arrest, he said.

Verusio also vowed to investigate the leak of legal documents related to the case, saying they did not come from his office.

Also on Thursday, Italian officials identified two victims as Jeanne Gannard, 70, and Pierre Gregoire, 69, both from France, the Italian Crisis Unit said.

Eight victims have now been named -- four French passengers, a Spanish passenger, and an Italian one, and one crew member each from Hungary and Peru.

Nearly a week after the wreck, it appears increasingly unlikely that any survivors will still be found aboard the ship.

Italian mother Susy Albertini, whose 5-year-old daughter Dayana Arlotti is reportedly the youngest person still missing, is among those desperate for news of their loved ones.

"I would like the rescuers to not stop looking and continue looking -- my little girl, they need to bring her back home as soon as possible," she said. The girl's father, Albertini's ex-husband William Arlotti, is also missing.

Declaring the operation to be recovery rather than rescue would allow salvage experts to start pumping fuel out of the ship, potentially averting an environmental catastrophe.

The ship was carrying about 2,300 tons of fuel when it hit rocks off the coast of the Italian island of Giglio on Friday night.

Schettino's brother-in-law defended him in an Italian newspaper Thursday.

Schettino "managed to avoid a tragedy -- it could have been worse," Maurilio Russo said in Corrierre della Sera.

And he denied that the captain had abandoned ship.

"He was not running away, he came down (from the ship) to survey the damage," Russo said.

Russo also said the route the captain took was not out of the ordinary.

''It is a usual procedure, the owners are well aware of it, it is useless to pretend otherwise," he said. "Passengers pay to see something and skirting very close to the shore is part of the show."

Read court documents on the case against Francesco Schettino (translation by La Repubblica)

Schettino's parish priest, Don Gennaro Starita, accused the media of "killing him" in an interview with an Italian newspaper.

"It's a shame," he said. "Already there are all these dead people; do we want to add another one to the list?"

The priest said he plans to visit the captain in the next couple of days "to express solidarity."

Judge Valeria Montesarchio's initial ruling found Schettino changed the ship's course, steering too close to shore and causing the ship to hit a rock.

The judge said the captain admitted to making a mistake and said that, at the time of the collision, he was navigating by sight.

In her preliminary investigation, Montesarchio said there appears to be considerable evidence against the captain, whom she said showed "imprudence and inexperience."

The judge also found that Schettino made no serious attempt to return to the ship after the crash, that he underestimated the damage to the Concordia, and that he failed to alert authorities in a timely manner.

"The captain could not but realize right away the gravity of the situation both because of the tilt and because he was alerted by the crew of the water influx," Montesarchio said.

The captain abandoned ship while at least 100 people were still on board, the judge said.

Montesarchio described the shipwreck as "a disaster of global proportion."

The ship hit rocks at about 9:41 p.m. Friday, according to information recovered from one of the ship's data recorders, the coast guard Nicastro said.

A second data recorder was located two days ago, but has not been recovered because it is underwater in a very difficult spot to access.

The first "black box" to be recovered was designed to float and did so, giving authorities an automatic record of the ship's position at time of impact; but the second data recorder is designed to provide much more information on radio transmissions and what happened on the boat, Nicastro said.

The family of two missing Americans, Gerald and Barbara Heil of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, said it was thankful for perilous attempts to find those still unaccounted for.

"While it is certainly hard for us to see the recovery efforts stall due to the unstable conditions ... we are also very concerned for the safety of the Italian Coast Guard as they continue to put forth a heroic effort in trying to find those who remain missing," the relatives wrote.

Costa Cruises chairman Pier Luigi Foschi earlier this week placed the blame for the wreck squarely on the captain, saying it was his choice to deviate from frequently traveled routes.

"We believe it has been a human error here," Foschi said Monday. "The captain did not follow the authorized route, which is used by Costa ships very frequently. There's probably more than 100 times in one year we have this route."

Schettino was arrested after leaving the ship while dozens were still aboard, panicked and fighting for lifeboats.

There were roughly 4,200 people on the Costa Concordia when it ran aground -- about 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew members, the vast majority of whom made it off the ship safely.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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