Rescuers brave cold, darkness to scour listing cruise ship

Divers inspect the Costa Concordia on Sunday. The death toll  from the disaster off the Tuscan island stands at at least six.

Story highlights

  • The rescue/recovery operation on the ship could take weeks, a diving expert says
  • Rescue operations resume, despite concerns about the weather
  • The search was temporarily suspended Monday because the ship started to sway
  • The Concordia is practically a skyscraper in two directions: 17 decks high and 951 feet long
Mammoth cruise ships can be difficult to get around, even in the best of circumstances. In the worst -- which is how one might describe the situation aboard the listing Costa Concordia -- they are near impossible.
Yet even before the sun rose Monday, about 120 rescue personnel were out in or around the liner that hit rocks near Tuscany and rolled spectacularly on its side.
They were in a race against time, and in a battle with numerous challenges, to try to save survivors or at least recover the bodies of the passengers and crew members who are still missing.
The search was temporarily suspended by noon Monday, after authorities said the vessel had begun to sway, making it dangerous for the crews. But it resumed a short time later, despite a forecast calling for increasingly strong winds that Coast Guard spokesman Filippo Marino said had rescuers worried.
They are "working in very, very bad conditions," said Luciano Roncalli of Italy's national fire service. "It's cold, of course. It's dark during the day and the night. ... It's really, really dangerous."
Authorities have said that at least six people died after the Costa Concordia hit rocks Friday night off the tiny island of Giglio, where nighttime temperatures have recently dipped below freezing.
A total of 29 people -- four crew members and 25 passengers -- are still unaccounted for from the listing cruise ship, Italian coast guard chief Marco Brusco said Monday, according to Italy's ANSA news agency. That figure includes two of the 120 Americans who were aboard the ship, the U.S. Embassy in Italy said.
Now turned on its side, the ship is roughly half-submerged. Rescuers hope is that any survivor has found refuge above water, or perhaps in an air pocket, and can be brought out alive.
"There could still be people locked into compartments ... where they can't physically move because of the twisting of the metal," said Butch Hendrick, president of the diving safety company Lifeguard Systems.
In its current state, the Costa Concordia resembles a dark, convoluted cave -- with its countless nooks and crannies and few ways to easily escape. Six underwater cave rescue divers are working among the rescue personnel.
The divers are likely equipped with twice as much oxygen as regular scuba divers, have a guideline nearby in case they need help finding a way back to safety, and have knives and whatever lights they can carry or wear, said Robert Laird, a co-founder of the International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery group.
Still, whatever equipment and precautions they take, "what they are doing is extremely difficult," he said.
"If you do not have the right frame of mind to deal with being in the dark and in tight closed spaces, then you're (in trouble)," said Laird, who has dived in many caves and ships, though neither he nor his group are involved in the Italian operation.
Unlike open water divers, these divers don't have the luxury of coming up for air anytime they want, and they can't count on the help of sunlight.
Laird said he expects that, besides being pitch-black, the water in the ship teems with debris.
"They could swim right by a dead body and not even see it," Laird said.
Rescuers are navigating a seeming labyrinth.
The Concordia is practically a skyscraper in two directions: 17 decks high and 951 feet long.
Emergency personnel are aiming to look into 1,500 cabins and all around the ship's many other public spaces, including eight bars, five restaurants, four swimming pools, a casino and more. Hendrick, a veteran of many such rescue dives, estimated it could take a couple of weeks for the whole ship to be checked.
"It's enormous," said Richard Bordoni, another member of the Italian national fire corps. "They have to stay safe, and it takes them a long time to go down a corridor."
Late Sunday, the cruise line said the ship's captain may have made "significant" errors leading to the wreck and subsequent rescue effort.
"The route of the vessel appears to have been too close to the shore, and the captain's judgment in handling the emergency appears to have not followed standard Costa procedures," Costa Cruises said in a statement.