Rescuers hold out hope for cruise ship survivors

Rescue workers searching the wreck of a luxury ship clutched onto glimmers of hope on Friday that they may still find survivors a week after the tragedy which left 32 people feared dead.

Relatives of those still missing from a stricken Italian cruise ship laid flowers on the sea at the scene as coast guard officials said there was still a slim possibility of finding trapped passengers in some parts of the ship.

And as more stories of bravery emerged from the disaster, the ship's chaplain said captain Francesco Schettino - since reviled as an incompetent coward - had "cried like a baby" in his arms once on shore.

Operations resumed at sundown on Friday on part of the giant 17-deck Costa Concordia still above water after having been suspended hours earlier when the ship began slipping off a rocky ledge into the open sea.

"We hope there could still be people alive inside. If the search goes on, it means we still have hope," said Cosimo Nicastro, a coast guard spokesman, told AFP as rescuers prepared to work through the night.

The search will focus on the third deck of the ship where the doomed luxury liner's lifeboats were. The liner will be monitored during the night and if is stable, divers would resume the underwater search at dawn on Saturday, he said.

The liner crashed into rocks off Giglio on the night of January 13 with 4,229 people from 60 countries on board and began to keel over just as passengers were settling down for supper at the start of their cruise.

The Italian cabinet on Friday declared a state of emergency for the island of Giglio, where there are fears that a potential spill from the ship's tanks filled with 2,380 tonnes of fuel oil could cause an environmental disaster.

The Tuscan archipelago where Giglio is located is Europe's biggest marine sanctuary and a popular holiday spot with pristine sandy beaches.

High waves in the Mediterranean had heightened fears that the 114,500-tonne ship, which is lying half-submerged on its side, could sink completely.

Eleven people have been confirmed dead in the tragedy so far including four French nationals, one Italian and a Spaniard among the passengers and two crew members - a Peruvian waiter and a Hungarian violinist.

Three of the bodies recovered have not yet been identified.

Relatives of the 21 people still missing have travelled to Giglio and towns on the Italian mainland, clinging to the hope that their loved ones survived.

The mother, father and sister of a missing Peruvian waitress and the brother of an Indian waiter took a coastguard vessel out to the wreck and laid white and yellow flowers in the sea next to the shipwreck.

The mother of missing five-year-old Dayana Arlotti was also on the island, along with the relatives of a young French couple lost at sea.

More stories emerged, meanwhile, of crew members' bravery.

Giovanni Lazzarini, 30, an entertainer on the ship, said he had dressed up as Spiderman, Mister Incredible and even Wonder Woman "to ease the fears of the children" after the ship crashed.

And Catholic chaplain Raffaele Malena told French magazine Famille Chretienne he had helped a child escape a stampede as passengers rushed for lifeboats. He also spoke of his emotional reunion onshore with Schettino.

"At around 2.30am I spoke to the captain. He embraced me and cried like a baby for about a quarter of an hour," he said.

Schettino, who is being investigated for multiple manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing a shipwreck, is currently under house arrest at his home on the Amalfi coast but has said he will appeal against the restriction.

He has denied Italian newspaper reports that he was joined on the bridge at one point by Domnica Cemortan, a 25-year-old Moldovan ballerina.

Fresh amateur video footage came to light on Friday, one showing a crew member misleading dozens of frightened passengers wearing life jackets by saying there was no alarm and they should return to their cabins.

Dutch company Smit Salvage meanwhile said it was ready to pump out the fuel in what is known as a "hot-tapping" operation, but officials say that would require suspending the search on the ship.

"A large ship will arrive in the next few days which will begin to remove the oil," said coast guard spokesman Nicastro, adding that it would take weeks to clear out the 23 fuel tanks aboard ship.

Experts say the Concordia is slipping off a rocky sea shelf at a rate of around a centimetre every hour towards the open sea.

The head of the vessel's owner, Costa Crociere, said in an interview that the company had been warned too late of the scale of the disaster, though Schettino has disputed their account.

Pier Luigi Foschi told Corriere della Sera that the first call from Schettino to Costa came at 2105 GMT almost half an hour after the ship hit rocks that are well known to local inhabitants.

The announcement to evacuate the ship came 68 minutes after that call.

- AFP

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