ROME // Salvage experts can begin pumping fuel from a capsized cruise ship early today to avert a possible environmental catastrophe and the ship is stable enough that search efforts for the missing can continue, Italian officials said.
The decision to carry out both operations in tandem was made after instrument readings determined that the Costa Concordia was not at risk of sliding into deeper waters, Franco Gabrielli, chief of the national civil protection agency, told reporters yesterday on the island of Giglio.
"The ship is stable. ... There is no problem or danger that it is about to drop on to much lower seabed," Mr Gabrielli said.
The Costa Concordia struck a reef January 13 on the tiny Tuscan island and capsized a few hours later just outside Giglio's port as it carried 4,200 passengers and crew on a Mediterranean cruise.
Taking advantage of calm seas, divers yesterday found the bodies of two women near the ship's internet cafe, raising to 15 the number of confirmed dead.
There are 17 people still unaccounted for, but Mr Gabrielli has said an unregistered Hungarian woman might have been aboard ship. The woman's relatives have told Italian authorities they haven't heard from her since she called them to say she was aboard the ship.
The ship's Italian captain, Francesco Schettino, is under house arrest near Naples as prosecutors investigate him for suspected manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his vessel while some passengers and crew were still aboard. He has insisted that he was coordinating rescue operations from a lifeboat and then from shore.
The cruise company, Costa Crociere SpA, has distanced itself from the captain, contending that he made an unauthorised deviation from the programmed route. Capt Schettino has reportedly told investigators that Costa officials had requested that he sail close to Giglio in a publicity move.
Capt Schettino's lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, told reporters yesterday that tests on urine and hair samples found that his client had not been under the influence of alcohol or drugs before the crash. Prosecutors could not confirm the report, since they cannot speak about the investigation while it is still under way.
Despite earlier fears, officials said the crippled cruise ship, with a 70-metre long gash in its hull, is not expected to roll off its rocky seabed perch and be completely swallowed by the sea.
An Italian geologist, on Giglio to monitor the Costa Concordia, told Sky TG24 yesterday the ship was barely moving. "It is moving at the rate of about one or two millimetres an hour," said Nicola Casagli, adding the ship has moved only up to 3mm an hour when tides come in or out.