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Italy cruise ship death toll rises to 5 as search continues

Scuba divers on Sunday retrieved the bodies of two men from the submerged lower levels of shipwrecked Costa Concordia, bringing to five the number of victims in Friday’s luxury liner accident off Italy’s Tuscan coast.

Rescue workers were racing to locate the 15 people still missing after the giant cruise ship struck a rocky reef and quickly rolled onto its side in front of the small island of Giglio.

As a many-pronged investigation got underway, the captain of the ship remained in custody on charges of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship. Prosecutors said he was responsible for the disaster because he knowingly brought the vessel too close to the rocky shore.

PHOTOS: Cruise ship runs aground

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Late Sunday, the cruise company Costa Crociere, headquartered in Genoa, released a statement saying it was cooperating with investigators and appeared to assign responsibility for the disaster to the captain.

“It seems that the captain committed errors of judgment that had extremely serious consequences; the route followed by the ship was too close to the coast,” the statement said, adding that the captain did not follow the company’s emergency procedures.

Hope of finding survivors had been high earlier Sunday following the rescue of a couple of 29-year-old South Korean honeymooners and an Italian officer of the ship who had remained trapped after having seen to the safe evacuation of many passengers, authorities said.

But after sundown, fire department official Claudio Chiavacci told Italian television that although search operations would continue through the night, it was growing less likely survivors would be found.

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Three bodies were recovered Saturday.

Authorities were evaluating the hypothesis that the ship’s 52-year-old captain, Francesco Schettino, had steered the ship too close to the island to take a “bow,” or salute its residents, an apparently common practice by cruise ships aiming to thrill their passengers, according to news reports.

The ship’s black box was retrieved and was being examined to ascertain how the decision was made to bring the ship within about 300 yards of the rocky coast on its way from Civitavecchia to Savona, port cities on Italy’s western coast.

Chief investigating magistrate Francesco Verusio of Grosseto said the captain had intentionally taken the nearly 1,000-foot, 126,000-ton vessel on “a route that it shouldn’t have,” bringing the ship too close to the rocks.

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Visible on the wounded hulk of the ship, lodged at an almost 90-degree angle on a reef, is a huge gash in the hull and a large boulder lodged on the left side. Signs of collision were also found on the right side, where the boat is listing, indicating the ship had run between two rocky outcrops, news reports said.

Schettino, who the cruise company said had been a captain since 2006, has said that he steered the ship on an authorized path but that it ran onto rocks that weren’t marked on maritime charts, an account authorities immediately disputed. He is also accused of leaving the vessel shortly after midnight, about five hours before the last of the passengers was safely off the ship.

Most of the more than 4,200 passengers and crew jumped in the water or were evacuated in lifeboats after the ship struck the rocks as dinner was being served. Passengers described a horrible groaning noise, the lights going out, and plates, tables and chairs sliding as the ship swiftly leaned to starboard.

Passengers were told by loudspeaker in Italian and other languages that there had been a power failure and that all was under control. Meanwhile, the ship was taking on water. Many passengers rushed to their staterooms to get life vests.

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Survivors described a terrifying scene of chaos in which people fought over flotation vests and lifeboats were stuck and unusable, while hundreds of people jumped into the icy winter waters, reaching the shore on their own or picked up by boats called to the scene. Many crew members did not appear well-trained to act in an emergency, they said.

Magistrates were also investigating claims that passengers had called coast guard and other port authorities warning of the ship’s difficulties, but that officials of the Costa Concordia insisted by radio that there was only a power failure.

News reports said more than an hour passed before an SOS was sounded.

In its statement, Costra Crociere defended the crew and equipment on the ship, saying all crew members had earned basic safety training certificates and that they were trained to act in emergencies and help passengers. It said its ships are fully equipped with life vests and boats.

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Some commentators said on Italian television that although the captain apparently had made a grievous error by bringing the ship too close to the rocky island, he had probably saved hundreds of lives by steering it back to the port of Giglio, a move that facilitated rescue operations.

Coast Guard spokesman Cosimo Nicastro said emergency workers would continue to search nonstop for survivors. Operations are extremely dangerous, he said, because although the ship was relatively stable lying on its side on the reef, any shift could cause it to fall off a drop of about 230 to 260 feet.

Vincenzo Bennardo, a spokesman for fire department rescuers, said the search by personnel from the coast guard, various fire departments, military and national police units was proceeding methodically, but that the steep angle of the vessel made it necessary for them to use ropes and move on hands and knees.

He said that anyone trapped in a stateroom would have difficulty getting to the door, which could be above them where the ceiling should be or below them, underwater.

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Firefighters early Sunday afternoon were able to reach Manrico Giampetroni, 57, a Costa Concordia officer who was hailed as a hero for his part in getting passengers to safety. He suffered a broken leg and was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Grosseto.

Authorities said that for the moment there was no danger that the 2,300 tons of fuel could leak from the vessel, an event that would be an environmental disaster for the island, popular with summer tourists for its crystal-clear water.

PHOTOS: Cruise ship runs aground

Delaney is a special correspondent.


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