Costa Concordia Mess Widens With Salvage Team, Criminal Probe

While the sunken Concordia pollutes the coast, persistent rescuers are sharing a mission with a salvage team. Meanwhile, a criminal probe against the captain is widening. Barbie Latza Nadeau reports.

Pier Paolo Cito / AP Photo

The Concordia is beginning to rust.

Paint is peeling from the upper decks and each day new debris falls into the water. The deck chairs, which were chained together in storage for the winter cruise, are slowly succumbing to gravity and have been sliding one by one to the railing that is now parallel to the sea. Inside the wreckage the water is thick, contaminated from the mix of odorous chemicals, from cooking oil to engine lubricants, that spilled when the ship capsized on Jan. 13. Divers talk of swimming through a “putrid soup of rotting food and floating sewage” as they search for the remains of nearly 20 missing passengers. Hundreds of seagulls have found their way to the wreckage, where they swoop low over the rescue workers.

Dozens of microexplosions have been set off to open passageways into the ship’s 17 submerged decks, each one releasing the contents into the once-pristine waters off the port of Giglio. Tangled tablecloths are wrapped around the floating chairs and tables that bob in the open waters as sanitation crews now join the emergency workers to clean up the mess. “Imagine that you left for a vacation and the power went off in your house. What would you find in your fridge?” said Ennio Aquilino, head of the Italian fire brigade at a press conference. “The divers are in there.”

The team of experts, headed by Franco Gabrielli of the Italian civil-protection agency, has given the green light for the Dutch salvage company SMIT to begin defueling the ship’s 17 tanks. A giant barge has made its way to the front of the wreckage near an enormous oil tanker that arrived over the weekend. Emptying the 500,000 gallons of fuel will take 28 days of constant work, with each transfer of fuel to the mainland posing a risky threat to Europe’s largest maritime reserve.

The Concordia’s tanks will be filled with water to balance the ship’s dead weight and keep it from sliding off its dangerous perch only a few hundred feet from deeper waters. The ship now shifts slightly with the rise and fall of the low Mediterranean tides, moving about a millimeter an hour. A sophisticated surveillance system that is generally used to monitor volcanoes has been put in place to capture the ship’s every movement. Once the tanks are empty of fuel, the salvage crew will only then begin the complicated process of either refloating the ship to take it to the mainland or cutting it apart. There is even talk of sinking the ship to make it into a reef. Whatever they decide to do, Costa Cruises will have to foot the bill. “There is no risk to the divers,” promised Gabrielli of running tandem salvage and search missions. Delaying the salvage operations and defueling would only cause more controversy, and Gabrielli is determined to get this job done as quickly as possible. “It’s time for Italy to show it can do something right and do it well.”

Meanwhile, a fierce polemic is brewing on the mainland among the Concordia’s erstwhile captain, Francesco Schettino, his former bosses at Costa, and the officers who were on deck when the ship hit the rocks off Giglio. Silvia Coronica, the third officer, gave evidence in Grosseto on Monday in the ongoing investigation. She described a scene of mayhem just minutes before impact as the restaurant’s head waiter excitedly pointed to the mainland. Schettino was allegedly guiding the ship close to Giglio on his behalf to wave to some friends who had gathered in the city’s main port.

“Schettino was scurrying from one part of the bridge to the other,” Coronica told investigators, according to transcripts of the investigation leaked to the press. “Those who came to the bridge were disturbing the ship’s navigation. The head waiter was chatting, disturbing the captain’s concentration on the steering.”

New evidence is also coming to the surface about Schettino’s curious behavior in the hours after the shipwreck. Paolo Fanciulli, owner of the Bahamas Hotel in Giglio’s main port, told investigators that the morning after the crash Schettino was at the hotel, being interviewed by Italian journalists. He was wearing a black uniform, not the white one he was photographed in at dinner, implying he had actually gone back to his cabin to change after the crash. Fanciulli told reporters that Schettino “wanted to change into dry socks,” so he left the hotel lobby momentarily, leaving a large red portfolio with what Fanciulli said looked like a laptop computer in the lobby. “He asked me if I could keep an eye on his computer,” Fanciulli said. “Then suddenly a blonde woman, who I assumed was his lawyer, came into the lobby and told reporters ‘no interviews’ and then took him by the arm and led him away.” The woman, whose picture has circulated in the Italian press, then disappeared. Schettino was arrested a few hours later, and he did not have the red portfolio with him. Divers have recovered the two safes in his cabin, which have been turned over to criminal investigators.

The investigation has widened since Schettino’s arrest on Jan. 14, according to a statement sent to The Daily Beast by Schettino’s lawyer Bruno Leporatti. Schettino was actually following orders given by Costa to skim by the island of Giglio, he says. “Costa ordered the deviation even before the Concordia left the port in Civitavecchia,” he said. Leporatti also said that toxicology tests for drugs and alcohol were negative, proving that Schettino was not under the influence the night of the accident. In Grosseto, where the investigation and eventual trial will take place, prosecutor Francesco Verusio is not talking. Instead, he is fighting a legal battle to try to get Schettino back in jail.

Schettino has been in Meta di Sorrento near the Amalfi Coast since being released on house arrest last Tuesday. He faces charges of multiple manslaughter, abandoning ship, and causing a shipwreck. The judge will hold another preliminary hearing later this month. Divers have also recovered the two black boxes from the ship, but Schettino’s lawyer says “one of the black boxes was broken and had not been functioning for months.”

As lawyers and prosecutors battle in court, and rescue and salvage workers dissect the shipwreck, the torturous wait for the families of the still 20 missing is increasingly unbearable. The family of missing Americans Jerry and Barbara Heil of Minnesota regularly post updates of the search to a blog. “This afternoon we joined some other people missing family members and were taken out near the ship and allowed to place flowers pretty close to the boat. We picked daisies for Mom and white roses for Dad. It was very emotional as all of the workers stopped what they were doing and saluted us all as we placed the flowers in the water.”

While there is very little hope of finding any survivors, the workers persist in looking for a miracle. “All of this is difficult and tiring for us,” says civil protection head Gabrielli. “But it’s agony for those family members who just sit and stare at that ship and wait for their loved ones to come back to them.”