Costa Concordia Disaster: Rescue Workers Search Desperately for Survivors

By in Porto Santo Stefano, Italy

The death toll in the Costa Concordia disaster has risen to six after a body was found early on Monday. Sixteen people are still missing. Rescue workers described the treacherous conditions aboard the ship, which is lying on its side off the Italian island of Giglio.

Photo Gallery: The Costa Concordia Disaster Photos
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The passageways of the Costa Concordia are said to be as dark and damp as caves. The Italian rescuers who are searching the wrecked cruise ship for survivors know a lot about such environments. They belong to a special unit of the fire department that apply mountain-rescue techniques to water-based operations.

On Sunday, they managed to rescue three people from their cabins, including a Korean couple on their honeymoon who were found trapped in a room. On Monday, the death toll from the accident rose to at least six people after the body of an adult male passenger was found just before dawn. More than 60 were injured, and 16 people are still missing on Monday. The ship, which had around 4,200 passengers on board, struck a rock on Friday evening just hours after leaving the Italian port of Civitavecchia and is now lying on its side close to the island of Giglio.

"The ship is now tilting at an angle of about 87 percent," Flavio Vescovio, an Alpine rescue specialist, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. On Sunday, he and seven other rescue workers were standing at the harbor of Porto Santo Stefano -- the closest mainland port to the island -- waiting to go out to the ship. "We have to move very carefully and follow strict safety precautions so that we don't put ourselves in danger," he explained. As part of those precautions, the eight-member rescue team has to rope themselves together, like members of a climbing team.

Working Round the Clock

"Our colleagues have told us how slippery the floors and walls are on the ship," said one of the rescuers in the port of Santo Stefano. It is still unclear how much fuel oil has already been spilled inside the ship, not to mention into the Tyrrhenian Sea. But the risk of falling inside the ship and receiving minor injuries pales against the scenario of what would happen should the Costa Concordia tilt further.

"We hope that the ship is lying relatively stably on the rocks under the water," commented one of the men. But there is no consensus among experts on that question. "You can't train for such a tragedy, anyway," the man added. Are the rescuers afraid? Vescovio waved away the question. "Maybe a little," he said, but added that it's all part of the job.

At that moment, the eight men who had found the two Koreans returned from the ship. It was time for Vescovio and his team to replace the other rescuers, who were from the Tuscan province of Massa-Carrara.

The returning team looked exhausted and hardly spoke. "I'm dead tired," said one of the men, who did not want to give his name. He was wearing a black uniform with fluorescent yellow stripes, and his eyes were red from exhaustion. He had been working with his colleagues for 24 hours. As he described how he pulled the Koreans from the cabin, there was no trace of heroism in his voice. "They were so relaxed," he said.

Fully Booked

Rescue workers and journalists have turned Porto Santo Stefano into a kind of base camp. Ferries leave from the port to the nearby island of Giglio, where the wrecked Costa Concordia lies. On Sunday, the sea between Santo Stefano and the island of Giglio was calm and there was hardly any wind.

Normally the only time when long lines of cars can be seen at the ferry terminal is in summer, when tourists flock to Giglio. But the port is currently much busier than it would usually be in mid-January. Along the harbor road, the screeching of gulls is drowned out by the sound of the generators powering the television stations' vehicles. The square in front of the fish market is full of cars, and the few hotels in the port are fully booked.

The residents of the island of Giglio are also struggling to cope with the situation. On Sunday, the clerk in the ferry ticket booth was explaining to Giglio resident Angelo Bafigi that he could not take his car on the ferry to Giglio. All the spaces were reserved for the emergency services, he said. Bafigi showed little sympathy for the situation and asked if he, as an islander, did not enjoy special rights. The man at the counter pleaded with Bafigi, explaining that ambulances were simply more important than private cars at the moment, but the Giglio resident appeared unconvinced.

'Serious Errors'

On Sunday, the company that operated the ship, Costa Crociere, said in a statement that the captain appeared to have made "serious errors of judgment" by taking the ship too close to the coast and not handling the emergency in accordance with the operator's procedures. The company expressed its "deep sorrow" for the disaster.

The captain, Francesco Schettino, was arrested on Saturday. He is accused of manslaughter and of abandoning the ship before all the passengers and crew were evacuated. Schettino denied any wrongdoing, telling Italian television that the rocks were not marked on his maps and insisted that he was the "last to leave" the vessel.

The search for survivors is continuing, fire department official Luca Cari told the Associated Press on Monday. Divers are inspecting the submerged areas, he said. He warned, however, that the sea was becoming rough.

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