Race Against Time in Wreck of ‘Costa Concordia’

Rescuers in Italy are rushing to search as much of the sunken vessel before a looming storm with high winds and six-foot waves can carry it out to sea or break it up and cause an environmental disaster.

01.17.12 9:45 AM ET

Four days after the tragic shipwreck of the luxury liner Costa Concordia that killed six passengers and crew members, authorities are still not sure how many people were aboard the ill-fated ship when it crashed into a rocky outcropping off the Tuscan island of Giglio.

By late Tuesday night, the Italian Coast Guard had settled on a new number—29 missing, nearly double the original figure. The discrepancy came when an attaché at the German Embassy in Rome started hinting that there are still as many as 12 German passengers missing that no one seemed to know about. The American Embassy in Rome also confirmed that Minnesota retirees Jerry and Beth Heil are among the missing, and have posted a picture of the couple on their Facebook page.

As officials with the cruise line and Italian authorities continue to wrangle over the passenger list, rescuers off Giglio are now racing against the clock to search as much of the sunken vessel as possible before a sea storm hits later this week. Meteorologists predict that by Thursday six-foot waves and high winds will arrive, and authorities worry they may dislodge the Costa Concordia from the rocks and carry it out to sea or cause the ship to break up, releasing up to 500,000 gallons of fuel into the Mediterranean Sea.

On Wednesday morning, the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, and his first mate, Ciro Ambrosio, will appear before a judge in Grosseto, where they face charges of manslaughter and abandoning ship. The Costa Crociere CEO Pier Luigi Foschi told reporters in Genoa that Schettino made an autonomous decision to deviate from the ship’s authorized course to do a maritime “fly-by” of Giglio on behalf of the ship’s head waiter. Several minutes before the crash, the sister of the waiter’s friend posted a Facebook message announcing the fly-by: “In a few minutes, the Concordia will pass very close to wave to my brother.”

Prosecutors in Grosseto are set to question the captain, who has been in a minimum security prison since his arrest on Saturday. “We are struck by the unscrupulousness of the reckless maneuver that the commander of the Costa Concordia made near the island of Giglio,” prosecutor Francesco Verusio said. “It was inexcusable.”

In a statement from Schettino’s lawyer Bruno Leporatti obtained by The Daily Beast, Schettino denies all wrongdoing and says he did not leave the ship prematurely. But multiple reports from the locals in Giglio imply otherwise. In a telephone conversation with the cruise line’s commander, Schettino allegedly was ordered to return to the ship. According to the prosecutor of Grosseto, the commander told Schettino, “Get back on board, what are you going to do, leave the injured?” to which Schettino allegedly replied, “OK, I’ll go back.”

In the meantime, a Dutch salvage company is expected to arrive on the scene Wednesday to begin preparations for securing the vessel. But with Mother Nature now threatening a violent storm, those plans may be for naught. If the Concordia breaks up or floats out to sea, the environmental disaster in the Mediterranean Sea will quickly eclipse the human toll.