January 18, 2012
COLLEEN BARRY, NICOLE WINFIELD
ROME (AP) — The first victim from the Costa Concordia disaster was identified Wednesday — a 38-year-old violinist from Hungary who had been working as an entertainer on the stricken cruise ship.
Sandor Feher’s body was found inside the wreck and identified by his mother, who had traveled to the Italian city of Grosseto, according to Hungary’s foreign ministry.
The $450 million Costa Concordia cruise ship was carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew when it slammed into a reef and flopped on its side Friday off the tiny Italian island of Giglio after the captain made an unauthorized detour on his route.
Eleven people have been confirmed dead so far, but the number of missing dropped to 21 Wednesday after a German passenger who was listed as missing was found alive back in Germany, the Grosseto prefect’s office reported. Italian officials have only released 27 names so far, including 12 Germans, six Italians, four French, two Americans and one person each from Hungary, India and Peru.
Jozsef Balog, a pianist who worked with Feher on the ship, told the Blikk newspaper that Feher was wearing a lifejacket when he decided to return to his cabin to pack his violin. Feher was last seen on deck en route to the area where he was supposed to board a lifeboat.
According to Balog, Feher helped put lifejackets on several crying children before returning to his cabin.
Others among the missing included a 5-year-old Italian girl and her father, an American couple from Minnesota, several German retirees and crew members from Peru and India.
Jerry and Barbara Heil of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, were described by colleagues as devout Catholics. Sarah Heil, their daughter, told WBBM radio in Chicago that her parents had been looking forward to their 16-day vacation after raising four kids and sending them all off to college.
“They never had any money,” Sarah Heil said. “So when they retired, they went traveling. And this was to be a big deal — a 16-day trip. They were really excited about it.”
Italian rescue workers, meanwhile, suspended operations early Wednesday after the cruise ship shifted slightly on the rocks near the Tuscan coast, creating deep concerns about the safety of divers and firefighters searching for the missing. Instruments attached to the ship detected the movements even though firefighters who spent the night searching the area for the missing could not.
“As a precautionary measure, we stopped the operations this morning, in order to verify the data we retrieved from our detectors, and understand if there actually was a movement, and if there has been one, how big,” said Coast Guard Cmdr. Filippo Marini.
By evening, officials still did not have enough data to reassure them that the ship had stopped resettling. The latest victims — five adults — were discovered Tuesday after navy divers exploded holes in the hull of the ship to allow easier access.
Concordia passengers around the world were still making their way home, with consistent claims that crew members were ill-prepared to handle an emergency evacuation.
“The crew members had no specialized training — the security man doubled as the cook and bartender, so obviously they did not know what to do,” passenger Claudia Fehlandt told Chile’s Channel 7 television after being embraced by relatives at Santiago’s airport.
“In fact, the lifeboats, even the ones that did get lowered, they did not know how to lower them and they cut the ropes with axes,” she said.
Much of the focus has been on the cruise ship captain, Francesco Schettino.
In a dramatic phone conversation released Tuesday, a coast guard official was heard ordering Schettino, who had abandoned the ship with his first officers, back on board to oversee the evacuation. But Schettino resisted, saying it was too dark and the ship was tipping dangerously.
“You go on board! Is that clear? Do you hear me?” the Coast Guard officer shouted as Schettino sat safe in a life raft and frantic passengers struggled to escape the listing ship. “It is an order. Don’t make any more excuses. You have declared ‘Abandon ship.’ Now I am in charge.”
The officer confronted him with an expletive-laced order to get back on board, which has quickly entered the Italian lexicon. The four-word phrase has become a Twitter hashtag and Italian media have shown photos of T-shirts bearing the command.
Schettino, later in the same exchange, denied having abandoned the ship, saying that he had tripped and fallen.
“I did not abandon a ship with 100 people on board, the ship suddenly listed and we were thrown into the water,” Schettino said, according to a transcript published Wednesday in the Corriere della Sera paper.
Jailed since the accident, Schettino was questioned by a judge for three hours Tuesday before the judge ordered him held under house arrest — a decision that federal prosecutors are planning to challenge.
Schettino’s lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, told a news conference Wednesday in Grosetto that the house arrest made sense, given there was no evidence the captain intended to flee. He cited the fact that the captain coordinated the evacuation from the shore after leaving the ship.
“He never left the scene,” Leporatti said. “There has never been a danger of flight.”
Leporatti added that Schettino was upset by the accident, contrary to depictions in the Italian media that he did not appear to show regret.
“He is a deeply shaken man, not only for the loss of his ship, which for a captain is a grave thing, but above all for what happened and the loss of human life,” the lawyer said.
Criminal charges including manslaughter and abandoning ship are expected to be filed by prosecutors shortly. Schettino faces a possible 12 years in prison on the abandoning ship charge alone.
Premier Mario Monti offered his first comment on the disaster Wednesday, telling a press conference in London that it “could and should” have been avoided.
Monti also thanked the residents of Giglio, which has a wintertime population of about 900, for opening their doors to the 4,200 refugees who struggled ashore with nothing and were given clothes, food and shelter.
And he acknowledged concerns about the 500,000 gallons of fuel still aboard the ship.
“Everybody can be assured that the Italian authorities are both taking care of the prevention and limitation of any environmental negative implications of this accident, as well as in the first place providing all the necessary help to those affected,” he said.