Italy bans cruise ship 'salutes' to prevent another Costa tragedy

On the eve of a massive investigative hearing in Italy, a government decree bans further 'fly bys'

First Post LAST UPDATED AT 08:13 ON Fri 2 Mar 2012

ITALY HAS announced a ban on ship "salutes" in all environmentally sensitive waters – including the Venice lagoons, the Amalfi coast and the islands of Capri and Elba – in the wake of the Costa Concordia shipwreck caused by the captain taking his cruise ship too close to the island of Giglio for just such a salute.

"This decree is a strong signal that marks a new phase for cruise traffic in Italy," said Minister for the Environment Corrado Clini who made the announcement when he flew into Giglio yesterday on his first official visit to the small Tuscan island since the 13 January incident.

"We have spoken with the European cruise association and agreed to work together towards environmentally sustainable tourism," said Clini. "The environment is Italy's most important resource and we hope this will help avoid any future catastrophes."

The decree establishes safety buffers and stricter navigational zones in environmentally fragile areas as well as prohibiting the maritime equivalent of a "fly by", made for the entertainment of passengers. Captain Francesco Schettino of the Costa Concordia often took the ship very close to Giglio, it transpired after the accident.

Although the loss of life - 25 dead and seven still missing, presumed dead – is still the main concern, there have been fears that fuel might leak from the stricken ship and cause environmental damage. The good news is that the Dutch-Italian defueling operation on the Costa Concordia is nearly complete, without incident, officials told The Week yesterday.

"We have emptied 1,900 metric tons of fuel from the ship," said Italian Navy Admiral Ilarione Dell'Anna. "We are still crossing our fingers, but we now believe there is much less risk of any ecological damage."

The disappointing news is that 40 days after the shipwreck there are still seven people unaccounted for – and that an apparent block on DNA testing means they might never be identified if and when they are found.

Eight bodies were recovered last week, but only one of those – five-year-old Dayana Arlotti – has been identified with certainty.

Relatives of those still missing, who remain on Giglio as divers continue to brave cloudy, contaminated waters inside the half-sunken ship's carcass, are left in a state of limbo. "Why has the Italian state blocked DNA testing on the bodies?" one father of a missing French citizen complained to The Week. "We still don't know if our loved ones have been brought out or not."

This matter is one of the many to be addressed in the massive investigative hearing scheduled for tomorrow in Grosseto, the nearest city on the Italian mainland.

Prosecutors there have deposited 5,000 pages of case files and have been questioning past and present staff and crew this week. Leaks from those interrogations have revealed allegations of drug and alcohol use among the crew, as well as a near "mutiny" after impact on 13 January.

Officers told prosecutors that Captain Schettino realised immediately the gravity of the situation, at one point saying "my career is finished," before becoming increasingly confused. Eventually, lower-ranking officers took the situation into their own hands.

"I ordered the lifeboats to be lowered even without the authorisation of the captain because I noticed that passengers were starting to jump into the sea," First Officer Ciro Ambrosio told prosecutors, according to La Nazione. Ambrosio said he swam to shore, where he saw Schettino on the rocks – dry, changed and carrying two bags.

Among those interviewed by prosecutors was the Moldovan dancer Domnica Cemortan who may or may not have been having an onboard affair with Schettino – she has changed her story more than once – but who has previously admitted being on the bridge with him when the ship hit the rocks.

Grosseto city officials are closing offices, streets and schools to manage the influx of lawyers, media, plaintiffs and defendants expected at tomorrow's hearing, to be held in a large theatre.

Though much of the blame for the accident has been heaped on Schettino - who faces charges of manslaughter, shipwreck, abandoning ship, among others - his lawyers say he saved many lives by reacting swiftly to the first impact and maneuvering the damaged boat closer to shore so that the majority of the 4,200 on board could swim to safety.

Prosecutors are also questioning whether or not the Italian Coast Guard, tasked with monitoring sea traffic by radar, warned the ship that it was dangerously off course. And they have have widened their investigation to include Costa Cruise managers.

The embattled Italian cruise company suffered another setback earlier this week when the Costa Allegra lost power in the Indian Ocean after an engine fire, leaving 636 passengers adrift for three days without hot food, water or electricity. That ship is now awaiting repair in a Seychelles port. · 

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