Italian authorities hope to stabilise the wrecked cruise ship Costa Concordia as worsening weather on Friday could cause it to shift deeper into the sea, delaying plans to pump oil out of the vessel to prevent a possible environmental disaster.
Six days after the 114,500 tonne ship capsized off the Tuscan coast, hopes of finding anyone alive in the partially submerged hulk have all but disappeared and the cold waters around the ship have become rougher.
Attention is now turning to how to remove 2,300 tonnes of fuel, with bad weather threatening to make the ship even more precarious on the rocky ledge where it is resting.
Environment Minister Corrado Clini told parliament he had urged the ship's operator, Costa Cruises, to take all possible measures to anchor the ship to prevent it from sliding deeper into the sea.
If the ship slides, we hope that it doesn't break into pieces and that the fuel tanks do not open up, he said.
Clini said there was a risk that the ship could sink to 50 to 90 metres below the reef it is now on, creating a major hazard to the environment in one of Europe's largest natural marine parks.
Eleven people are known to have died out of more than 4,200 passengers and crew aboard when the ship struck a rock just metres from the shoreline, tearing a large gash in the side of the hull. As many as 24 are still unaccounted for.
The ship is a labyrinth. It's gigantic and it's lying on its side in the water. It's a miracle that so many survived, said Modesto Dilda, head of one of the diving teams.
The ship's captain Francesco Schettino has been placed under house arrest, accused of causing the accident by sailing too close to the rocky shore and then abandoning ship before the evacuation was complete.
The ship's operators have suspended him and said they considered themselves the damaged party in the accident, which industry experts say could turn out to be the biggest maritime insurance claim in history.
On Thursday, SkyTG24 broadcast a tape of what was described as a conversation between coastguard officials and the bridge of the Concordia which appeared to show officers telling authorities they had suffered only a blackout more than 30 minutes after the impact.
Italian media also devoted considerable attention to a female Moldovan crew member who was on board but not on duty. Several reports said she had been seen on the bridge with Schettino.
In an interview with a Moldovan television station, the woman, 25 year-old Domnica Cemortan, praised Schettino's extraordinary handling of the situation. Costa said she had embarked normally on January 13 in Civitavecchia and was properly registered.
Holes were blasted into the wrecked liner on Thursday to allow divers to continue the search for bodies, but none was found. It's important to continue our search. Family members find it important to have the body of the loved one they've lost because it gives them closure. We understand this, said Dilda.
Only after that search is called off are salvage crews expected to begin pumping the fuel out of the wreck, a process that will probably take at least two weeks.
Clini said Costa Cruises had been instructed to ensure steps are taken to limit the damage if the ship's fuel tanks rupture, including putting in place some 1,000 metres of pollution barriers.
The Italian cabinet will discuss new regulations on Friday to prevent big cruise ships from taking risky routes and passing too close to islands or shorelines, Clini said.
(Additional reporting by Radu Marinas in Bucharest, Silvia Ognibene in Grosseto; Editing by David Stamp)