'Ecological timebomb' fears over cruise ship
Italian officials fear environmental crisis as rescuers search for 29 people still missing after Mediterranean sinking.
Last Modified: 17 Jan 2012 14:40

Rescue workers are continuing to search for 29 people missing since a cruise ship partially sank after hitting rocks off the coast of an Italian island, as officials voiced concerns that the possible break-up of the stricken vessel could trigger an environmental disaster.

Giglio mayor Sergio Ortelli said on Tuesday that the Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the island on Sunday, was an "ecological timebomb" that could start leaking thousands of tonnes of diesel fuel into the surrounding sea.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Royal Boskalis Westminster, the Dutch company handling the operation to remove the fuel from the vessel, said the process would take at least three weeks.

When pumping out diesel oil, Peter Berdowski told Dutch television, "every hour counts because if something happens and that spills and there is damage, then you have a very big ecological catastrophe".

Six people are so far confirmed dead as a result of the accident. Most of the 4,200 passengers and crew survived, despite hours of chaos as some were rescued from the ship and others boarded lifeboats or swam to shore.

Marco Brusco, the head of the Italian coastguard, said that four crew members and 25 tourists remained unaccounted for.

The Reuters news agency has quoted Italian officials as saying that the 29 missing passengers include 14 Germans, six Italians, four French, two Americans, and one each from India, Peru and Hungary. 

Rescue workers used controlled explosions on Tuesday morning to allow firefighters and scuba divers to enter previously inaccessible areas of the ship.

The ship, one of the biggest passenger vessels ever to be wrecked, foundered after striking a rock just as dinner was being served on Friday night. It quickly rolled on its side, revealing a long gouge below the waterline.

'Inexplicable' human error

At a press conference on Monday, the head of Costa Crociera, which owns the cruise ship, said the accident had been caused by "inexplicable" human error as the company moved to distance itself from Francisco Schettino, the captain of the ship.

"The company disavows such behaviour that caused the accident by deciding to deviate the ship from its ideal route," Pier Luigi Foschi said.

The Costa Concordia accident explained [Al Jazeera]

Costa Crociera said late on Sunday that Schettino appeared to have steered the vessel too close to the shore and had "made an error of judgement which has had serious consequences".

Authorities are holding Schettino for suspected manslaughter and a prosecutor confirmed on Sunday they were also investigating allegations the captain abandoned the stricken liner before all the passengers had escaped.

According to the Italian navigation code, a captain who abandons a ship in danger can face up to 12 years in prison.

Schettino has said that the rocks which sank the vessel were not marked on the nautical charts.

"I firmly believe that the rocks were not detected as the ship was not heading forward, but sideways," he said in an interview.

"I don't know if it was detected or not, but on the nautical chart it was marked just as water, at some 100 to 150 metres from the rocks, and we were about 300 metres from the shore."

Al Jazeera and agencies
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