Italy ends search for underwater missing in wreck

January 31, 2012 - 10:25 AM
Italy Cruise Aground

An Italian firefighter is lowered from an helicopter onto the grounded cruise ship Costa Concordia off the Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. Residents of Giglio are growing increasingly worried about threats to the environment and the future of the Italian island following the suspension of the recovery operation of the capsized cruise ship Costa Concordia. (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito)

GIGLIO, Italy (AP) — Italian emergency officials are ending the search for missing people in the submerged part of the Costa Concordia cruise ship due to the danger to rescue workers.

Italy's Civil Protection agency said Tuesday that technical studies indicated the deformed hull of the ship created too many safety concerns to continue the search within it. Relatives of the missing and diplomatic officials representing their countries have been informed of the decision, it said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Civil Protection, Francesca Maffini, stressed that the search for the missing would continue wherever possible, including on the part of the ship above the water, in the waters surrounding the ship and along the nearby coastline.

The Concordia ran aground off the Tuscan island of Giglio on Jan. 13 when the captain deviated from his planned route and struck a reef, creating a huge gash that capsized the ship.

Some 4,200 passengers and crew were on board when it capsized. Seventeen bodies have been recovered, of which one has not yet been identified. Sixteen people are listed as missing but are presumed dead. The last time anyone was found alive was Jan. 15.

Italian authorities had already begun shifting their focus from finding the missing to preventing an environmental disaster. The ship contains about 500,000 gallons (2,400 tons) of heavy fuel and other pollutants, and fears are growing that those pollutants could spill out, damaging a pristine environment that is home to dolphins, whales and other marine life.

Franco Gabrielli, the head of Italy's civil protection agency, has it could take a full seven to 10 months once a contract is awarded to remove the 950-foot-long (290-meter) ship, raising deep concerns among residents who make their living from fishing and tourism.

Only once the fuel is pumped out — a monthlong process — can salvage work begin on removing the ship, either floating it in one piece or cutting it up and towing it away.

That means the damaged ship, or at least parts of it, will still be off the coast for the summer tourist season.