Cruise ship fuel removal stalled due to rough seas

Rough seas off Italy's Tuscan coast forced a delay in the planned Saturday start of the operation to remove a half-million gallons of fuel from the grounded Costa Concordia, and officials said pumping may now not begin until midweek.

Recovery operations continued, however, and on Saturday yielded a 17th body: The woman who wasn't wearing a life jacket was found by divers on the submerged sixth floor deck, civil protection officials said.

The Concordia ran aground on Jan. 13 off the port of the island of Giglio port after the captain deviated from his planned route and gashed the hull of the ship on a reef. Some 4,200 passengers and crew endured a panicked evacuation after the abandon ship alarm didn't sound until the ship had capsized so much that some life boats couldn't be lowered.

Some 16 people remain unaccounted for and are presumed dead.

On Saturday, the body found on the ship's deck on Jan. 28 was identified as Erika Soria Molina, 25, of Peru by Doris Sotomayor, Peru's consul general in Florence.

Sotomayor told The Associated Press that the body was found in a submerged part of the deck. Soria, who was wearing a service uniform, studied tourism in Peru and was born in the Andean city of Cuzco, southeast of Lima.

The removal of the fuel aboard the Concordia is a key concern since the seas around Giglio form part of a protected marine sanctuary and are a favorite destination for scuba divers. So far, no leakage has been detected.

Dutch shipwreck salvage firm Smit has been contracted by the Concordia's owner Costa Crociere SpA, a unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp., to remove the fuel. Smit's divers have made the necessary preparations to begin pumping out fuel from six outer tanks that hold more than half of the 500,000 gallons (1.9 million liters) of heavy fuel oil that are aboard the ship.

The rest of the fuel is contained in inner tanks that are harder to access.

So far, divers have drilled into four of the six outer tanks and fixed valves on them: one on top, one on bottom. Hoses will then be attached to the valves and as the oil — which must be warmed to make it less gooey — is sucked out of the upper hose, sea water is pumped in to fill the vacuum via the lower hose.

Smit spokesman Martijn Schuttevaer told reporters Saturday that the pumping operation may not begin now until midweek since the poor weather is forecast at least through Tuesday. Officials don't want to risk the possibility that a battering of the hoses caused by rough seas might lead to leakage.

On Saturday, the choppy waters partially dislodged Smit's barge that was hitched to the Concordia's hull and had served as a staging platform for the fuel removal operation. Smit brought it back into port, where it will stay until the weather improves, Schuttevaer said.

The Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino, remains under house arrest, accused of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning a ship before its passengers had evacuated. He has admitted he took the ship on “tourist navigation” to bring it close to Giglio but said the reef he hit wasn't marked on his nautical charts.

___

Winfield reported from Rome. Franklin Briceno contributed in Lima, Peru.

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