Costa Concordia: As Hope Fades for More Survivors, Finger-Pointing Begins

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Filippo Monteforte / AFP / Getty Images

Seagulls sit in front of the stricken cruise liner Costa Concordia off the Tuscan island of Giglio on January 21, 2012.

As hope fades for the successful rescue of the 20 people still missing a week after the wreck of the Costa Concordia cruise ship, the focus of operations on the Italian island of Giglio is shifting towards the prevention of future catastrophe and the allocation of blame for that which has already occurred. With some 500,000 gallons of fuel oil still sloshing around in the hull of the ship, "We need to prevent an environmental disaster," says Franco Gabrielli, the head of Italy's civil protection agency, who is coordinating the emergency response. He added that while the agency wasn't giving up rescue attempts, the risk of rupture of the ship's fuel tanks was becoming an increasingly important worry.

Rescuers have been investigating whether the ship can be chained to the rocks on which it capsized last week, to halt its slow slippage towards deep waters, which would dramatically complicate further salvage efforts. The consequences of an oil spill would be disastrous. The mayor of Giglio has called the ship an "ecological time bomb." The potential for pollution puts at risk not only the area around the tiny Mediterranean island, but also the entirety of the nearby coast of Tuscany, one of the engines of Italian tourism. On Saturday, light oil was discovered floating near the Concordia, but rescue workers speculated it may have been diesel from rescue boats or lubricant from some of the on board machinery, not the heavy engine oil that could spell environmental devastation.

The plan is to extract the fuel oil and replace it with water, to avoid destabilizing the ship. Experts estimate that draining even those tanks closest to the outside of the hull could take as much as month — providing storms don't cause delays — and that the inner tanks could prove harder to reach. Still, "there is a very good chance that the fuel oil can be removed," says Paul Wright, associate director of the Marine Institute at Britain's Plymouth University. Contamination from the kitchen oils, chemicals, sewage, and personal belongings of the crew and passengers are likely to be contained using booms. What could prove more challenging is the salvage operation of the $450 million ship itself. "I would be very surprised if she is righted and floated off," says Wright. "The most likely solution is that she will be cut up and dismantled in position." It's an operation that could take months.

Meanwhile, the legal process is gearing up as Italian authorities work to establish the criminal liability for what some experts predict will produce the most expensive insurance claims in maritime history. As of Saturday, the death toll for the accident stands at 12 and is likely to rise; the Costa Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino, is under house arrest and facing charges of manslaughter. At the heart of the investigation will be determining what happened in the 70 minutes between the moment the ship tore itself open on the rocks and Schettino's first formal call for help. In the interval, the coast guard was misinformed by a member of the Concordia's crew about the condition of ship, even as it was taking on water. And passengers were told by an apparently confused or oblivious crew that the problem had been resolved and that they should return to their rooms.

Lawyers for civil plaintiffs will be eager to show that responsibility for the tragedy extends beyond the incompetence of the captain. "You have an incentive to find the deep pockets," says Luca Melchionna, a professor at St. John's University School of Law. Was the Costa Concordia's dangerous approach to the island part of a pattern that the cruise company had previously sanctioned or tolerated? To what extent did company policy contribute to the disarray in the early minutes when lives could have been saved? How well prepared were the crew for the event of an emergency?

For now, the cruise company has joined the criminal case against the captain as a civil party, formally putting itself among the injured and (not coincidentally) forestalling civil action in Italy while the criminal trial plays out, something that could take months of years. "It's a strategic legal move that protects them, at least for a while," says Melchionna. But such maneuvers won't protect the company in other jurisdictions. While lawyers for potential plaintiffs have complained that the waivers their clients were asked to sign have ruthlessly limited the cruise line's liability, at least two law firms have announced they plan to file a class action lawsuit in the U.S. next week. Meanwhile, several passengers have already sought representation with the British law firm Irwin Mitchell. "With thousands of passengers and crew on board this huge vessel, their safety should have been the first and only priority," Clive Garner, the head of the firm's international law team, said in a statement. "Tragically, it seems that this was not the case and passengers and their families have paid a very heavy price."