Salvage crews expect to begin pumping thousands of tonnes of fuel from the wrecked Costa Concordia by Saturday, officials said, as divers found a 16th body on the giant Italian cruise liner, which capsized off the Tuscan coast over a week ago.
Preparations began Tuesday for the complex task of extracting more than 2,300 tonnes of diesel oil from the giant liner's 17 fuel tanks with divers beginning the work of installing external fuel tanks to hold the oil pumped out.
As the salvage preparations began Tuesday, divers found the body of an elderly woman wearing a life jacket, bringing the total number of bodies recovered so far to 16.
At least 16 more people are missing on the 290-metre long vessel, which lies half-submerged on its side just outside the tiny island port of Giglio. Nine victims have been identified and the identities of seven others are so far unknown.
Dutch salvage company SMIT brought a barge carrying defueling equipment alongside the giant hulk as divers worked on installing external tanks that will be used to hold more than 2,300 tonnes of diesel that must be pumped out of the Concordia.
Navy explosive experts also blasted a hole into the submerged third deck of the ship to allow divers to continue the search of the vessel after the bodies of two so-far unidentified women were found Tuesday.
While this operation is underway, rescue efforts are continuing simultaneously, fire services spokesman Claudio Chiavacci said.
Authorities have been increasingly concerned at the threat of an oil spill in the marine reserve where the accident occurred but work on removing diesel and lubricating oil has been delayed by the search for survivors and bodies.
Preparations to begin pumping the oil are expected to take several days and the actual work of removing the fuel from the giant liner's 17 fuel tanks will take another 28 days.
The head of Italy's Civil Protection Authority, Franco Gabrielli, said pumping would probably not begin before Saturday but added: Anything before that would obviously be welcome.
Officials dismissed reports that oil had started to leak out of the ship, saying that monitoring equipment had shown no significant pollution spreading from the wreck. A thin film of oil had spread in the water but posed no serious threat.
Gabrielli said he had asked the ship's owners Costa Cruises to produce a plan to clean up the pollution from general debris around the vessel by Wednesday.
As the work on Giglio continued into a second week, magistrates investigating the accident are expected to extend their inquiries, with attention increasingly focused on Costa Concordia's operators.
The company's chief executive Pier Luigi Foschi is due to be questioned by the public works committee of the Senate on Wednesday and Italian newspapers speculated that company officials would be questioned by magistrates soon.
The ship's captain, Francesco Schettino has been blamed for the accident on January 13 and placed under house arrest, accused of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship before the evacuation of more than 4,200 passengers and crew was complete.
But his lawyer said Monday that the investigation would be extended to other officials of Costa, a unit of the world's largest cruise operator Carnival Corp.
Costa said Tuesday it had not been notified that it was under investigation but would cooperate fully with investigators and had full confidence in magistrates.
There was some confusion Tuesday about the status of toxicological tests on Schettino.
His lawyer said Monday that the tests had proved negative but Carlo Rienzi, the head of consumer protection association Codacons, which has declared itself a civil party in the case, said drugs tests would be carried out in Rome Thursday. He said no test for alcohol was planned.
In interviews, the company has placed the blame for the accident squarely on the shoulders of the 51 year-old Schettino, who told investigators he brought the ship close into shore to perform a maneuver known as a salute to the island.
How far Costa knew about or even encouraged such manoeuvres has been disputed but there are also questions about when Schettino informed the company of what had happened after the ship was holed by a rock.
Schettino's lawyer has said his client is ready to assume his share of responsibility for the accident but he has said he was in constant touch with Costa's command center during the including the evacuation of the ship.
(Additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino and Sara Rossi in Milan, Writing By James Mackenzie; Editing by Giles Elgood)