Sunday, January 15, 2012

Aussies safe as rescuers swing into action - 15th January 2012

Rescuers have found two people alive on a cruise ship that hit rocks and keeled over off the west coast of Italy, but dozens of people remain missing.

"We have managed to speak to them but we have not reached them yet," Luca Cari, a spokesman for the fire brigade at the scene of the disaster off the island of Giglio, said today.

"There are 35 rescuers trying to reach them."

The survivors, a man and a woman, were stranded two decks below rescuers on the half-submerged ship, where a search for dozens of missing people out of more than 4200 originally on board was continuing.

Three people - two French passengers and a Peruvian crew member - have been confirmed killed, apparently after jumping into the chilly Mediterranean waters after the ship hit rocks late on Friday [local time] and began to keel over.

The passengers included 23 Australians and a New Zealander. Two Australians initially reported missing have made contact with their families.

The ABC reported the couple, Grant and Tessa Strickland, from Newcastle, were celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary aboard the ship.

Ms Strickland's mother, Robyn Watts, said her daughter and son-in-law were in good spirits and preparing to return home.

"They seem to be doing quite well," she said.

"They were lucky in that they were in their cabin when it happened - unlike a lot of passengers who were dining - so at least they had access to their coats and were able to be warm.

"And they were in one of the last few lifeboats to actually get away from the ship."

Ms Watts said the couple were expected to arrive in Sydney late tomorrow.

"They were happy to be safe. It was a fairly confused atmosphere. I think they weren't really sure what was going on," she said.

"We were able to contact DFAT for them and the consulate met them when they got to the mainland, which was really helpful.

"They've been looked after quite well. They were given accommodation and clothes and they've sorted some airfares back for them."

Cosimo Nicastro, a spokesman for the Italian coast guard, said the rescue operation to save the stranded passengers was a risky one.

"The ship is in waters that are 30 metres deep. It could slowly slip into the sea and sink completely," he said.

"We are talking about 50 or 60 people who are still missing."

Earlier, the governor of nearby Grosseto, Giuseppe Linardi, and port officials said 41 people were still missing.

Nicastro said some survivors may not have been counted properly but said others could have been trapped in their cabins or in other areas below deck.

Rescuers said they plucked 100 people from the sea in the night between Friday and Saturday after some of the lifeboats failed to function or could not descend to the water from a ship that was listing badly.

About 60 people who had not managed to escape in lifeboats had to be rescued from the vessel itself, including one passenger with a broken leg.

Crew members familiar with the layout of the ship were helping divers negotiate their way around the Italian-built liner's 1500 cabins.

Investigators arrested the ship's captain on Saturday and would begin analysing the "black box" recovered by rescuers, which logged all of the 291-metre ship's movements as well as conversations between personnel.

The captain, Francesco Schettino, told Italian news channel TGCOM that the ship hit a rock that was not on the charts and that he had tried to save as many people as possible.

First officer Ciro Ambrosio was also arrested, local prosecutors said.

Italian media said the two faced possible charges of multiple homicide and abandoning the ship before all the passengers were rescued.

A prosecutor said the captain "approached Giglio Island in a very awkward way, hit a rock that stuck into its left side, making the ship list and take on a huge amount of water in the space of two or three minutes".

Island residents said the ship was sailing far too close to Giglio and had hit an underwater rocky reef that was well known to the local population of the picturesque hilly outcrop, which has a population of just 800 people.

Survivors from around the world - many of them with bloodshot eyes and draped in blankets - spoke of scenes "like the Titanic" on board and said they were not properly informed on the evacuation.

Some of the survivors were in evening wear as they had just been settling down to supper when the accident happened.

There were also bar and restaurant staff in crimson blazers and kitchen staff in white smocks.

"We were lucky we were so close to the shore. Thank God. Everyone was very afraid," said Jose Rodriguez, a 43-year-old barman from Honduras, who was standing in line to receive food and clothing from emergency officials.

Officials said all the survivors had been taken off the island on Saturday to nearby Porto Santo Stefano and then on to other parts of Italy or back home.

People from more than 50 countries were on board and 52 were children under six.