The cruise ship that capsized off Italy's coast will take up to 10 months to remove, officials said Sunday, as rough seas off the Tuscan coast forced the suspension of recovery operations.
Officials called off both the start of operations to remove of 500,000 gallons of fuel and the search for people still missing after determining the Costa Concordia had moved four centimeters (an inch and a half) over six hours, coupled with waves of more than one meter (three feet).
A 17th body, identified as Peruvian crew member Erika Soria Molina, was found Saturday. Sixteen crew and passengers remain listed as missing, with one body recovered from the ship not yet identified.
Officials have virtually ruled out finding anyone alive more than two weeks after the Costa Concordia hit a reef, but were reluctant to give a final death toll for the Jan. 13 disaster. The crash happened when the captain deviated from his planned route, creating a huge gash that capsized the ship. More than 4,200 people were on board.
“Our first goal was to find people alive,” Franco Gabrielli, the national civil protection official in charge of the operation, told a daily briefing. “Now we have a single, big goal, and that is that this does not translate into an environmental disaster.”
University of Florence professor Riccardo Fanti said the ship's movements could either be caused by the ship settling on its own weight, slipping deeper into the seabed, or both. He also could not rule out the ship's sliding along the seabed.
Gabrielli noted that the body of a man recovered from the ship remains unidentified, despite efforts to obtain DNA samples from all of the missing, meaning that officials cannot preclude that the deceased is someone unknown to authorities. Costa has said that it runs strict procedures that would preclude the presence of any unregistered passengers.
Experts have said it would take 28 days to remove fuel from 15 tanks accounting for more than 80 percent of all fuel on board the ship. The next job would be to target the engine room, which contains nearly 350 cubic meters of diesel, fuel and other lubricants, Gabrielli said.
Only once the fuel is removed can work begin on removing the ship, either floating it in one piece or cutting it up and towing it away as a wreck. Costa has begun the process for taking bids for the recovery operation, a process that will take two months.
Gabrielli said the actual removal will take from seven to 10 months — meaning that the wreck will be visible from the coast of the island of Giglio for the entire summer tourism season.
Residents of Giglio have been circulating a petition to demand that officials provide more information on how the full-scale operations can coexist with the important tourism season. At the moment, access to the port for private boats has been banned and all boats must stay at least one mile (1.6 kilometers) from the wrecked ship, affecting access to Giglio's only harbor for fishermen, scuba divers and private boat owners.
“We are really sorry, we would have preferred to save them all. But now other needs and other problems arise,” said Franca Melils, a local business owner who is promoting a petition for the tourist season. “It's about us, who work and make a living exclusively from tourism. We don't have factories, we don't have anything else.”
Colleen Barry reported from Milan.