Rescue efforts on ship snarled, fuel-spill threat looms
Monday, 16 January 2012, 15:38
INTERNATIONAL NEWS - Several dogs and their minders huddle together under the drizzle on the quayside as the man, the signs of a rough night stamped on his face, somehow finds the energy to pull past them before climbing into a waiting van.
"Don't call me a hero, I'm just doing my job," he says, but won't give his name as he disappears into the vehicle.
The man, a member of Italy's firefighters' brigade, has just come off a gruelling shift - searching for bodies, and, by some miracle, survivors - on board the wreck of the cruise ship, Costa Concordia.
In the dim morning light, the vessel's massive contours can be clearly made out as it lies, semi-capsized, several hundred metres across from Port Egidio, the main settlement on the normally picturesque island of Giglio.
The idle dogs, some of them whimpering in the cold, are testimony to a failed attempt to use them to assist rescuers on those parts of the vessel that still remain above water.
"They couldn't hold their balance, they were slipping and sliding and were impossible to control, so we abandoned the idea," Luca Cari, the firefighters' spokesman told dpa.
Following an overnight break, underwater search operations involving scuba divers resumed under conditions that "are becoming more difficult and dangerous," Cari said.
"Furniture and other heavy debris are crammed against the walls, which have now become the ship's floors. They could collapse on the rescuers," he said.
Early Monday, the sixth victim of the disaster was found on the Costa Concordia's second bridge - the orange life-jacket he was wearing allowing rescuers to deduce that he was one of the more than 3,100 originally on the ship.
Equipped with 1,500 cabins, five restaurants and 13 bars, much of the ship still needs to be explored.
But worsening weather conditions were increasingly hindering the progress of search-and-rescue operations.
Down below, the rough seas were making it difficult for boats to reach the listing cruise ship that on Monday suddenly began to sway from its position. Up in the air, rescue service helicopter pilots had to contend with strong winds as they picked up and dropped off men and equipment.
At one stage all operations were suspended.
And while the thousands of survivors who arrived on Friday night, after the ship struck rocks and then a shoal have left Giglio, there is still great unease on the normally tranquil island.
Carmine Provenzano regularly shuttles people between the port and Giglio Castello, a tiny hill-top medieval hamlet. At about midnight on Friday, well after his last shift had ended, he was urgently called back on duty.
"They were cold and wet and one lady, I think she was Japanese, was crying," he says, recalling how he drove a group of passengers to temporary lodgings.
That night, the islanders opened up bars, churches and their homes, earning a special commendation from Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.
But along with the other islanders, Provenzano, who hails from the southern town of Potenza but has lived on Giglio for more than 20 years, has some new concerns.
The island's inhabitants numbers about 600, but with its pastel pink-and-peach buildings, and pristine waters, it becomes a major attraction in the summer when the population can easily reach 10 times that number.
"Tourists are our life," says Provenzano, and pointing at the ship, adds, "That is the threat."
His words seem paradoxical, given that people have been making ferry trips from the mainland just to see the wreck.
But it is the island's long-term status as a tourist attraction that is at stake.
"People are obviously afraid of a spillage of the more than 2,300 tons of diesel from the Costa Concordia's fuel tanks," Giglio Mayor Sergio Ortelli told dpa.
"But we have been assured that there is no theoretical risk that this could happen."
He adds: "We want to assure our visitors, including many German friends, that the island will continue to welcome them with its beauty and charm."
Back in Rome, Italy's Environment Minister Corrado Clini, used a more cautionary tone.
"There are currently no leakages, but we have to intervene immediately (to remove the fuel) and thwart an environmental disaster," he told RAI public radio.