Divers searching a capsized Italian cruiseliner were hoping for calm seas on Thursday after the ship shifted precariously on a rocky ledge, delaying plans to remove oil from the vessel to prevent a possible environmental disaster.
Five days after the Costa Concordia struck a rock and capsized off the picturesque Tuscan island of Giglio, hopes of finding anyone alive have faded and salvage experts are preparing to pump 2,300 tonnes of fuel from the hulk.
Weather conditions, which have been largely good since the 114,500 tonne vessel ran aground, are forecast to worsen over coming days, making the ship even more unstable and complicating the search for survivors and bodies.
Eleven people are confirmed dead and 22 are still missing from more than 4,200 passengers and crew who were onboard when the Concordia foundered on Friday evening, two hours into a week-long cruise of the western Mediterranean.
The search was suspended all day on Wednesday after the ship slipped by some 1.5 metres, the second such suspension since rescue attempts began. As darkness fell, a spokesman said the Concordia had stabilised but it was unclear if the search would resume before daylight on Thursday.
Environment Minister Corrado Clini told parliament there was a risk that with sea conditions expected to worsen, the ship could slip down 50 to 90 metres from the reef it is resting on, further damaging the vessel and creating a major hazard to the environment in one of Europe's largest natural marine parks.
He said ship operator Costa Cruises had been instructed to ensure steps are rapidly completed to limit the damage if the ship's fuel tanks rupture, including putting in place some 1,000 metres of pollution barriers.
Clini said fuel extraction would take at least two weeks and could not begin until the search for survivors and bodies had been completed.
The ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, blamed for causing the accident by steering too close to shore and then abandoning the vessel before the evacuation was complete, is under house arrest.
Until the order was given to suspend work, divers had been preparing to resume the difficult and dangerous search of the submerged areas of the giant ship after entries are blasted with explosives.
Relatives of some of the missing have arrived at the scene, although little serious hope remained of finding anyone alive in the chill waters. No survivors have been rescued since Sunday.
We are asking that in this moment all the rescue team units and authorities don't lose any time and do everything they can to recover or find, dead or alive, my daughter, said Sartonino Soria, who had come from Peru after learning that his daughter Erika, a member of the crew, was missing.
This is the reason why we are here and we will not leave until we have found Erika, he said.
The list of those still unaccounted for included 13 German, four French, five Italian and two American passengers, together with four crew members from Italy, India and Peru. Some of those missing are believed to be included among dead that have been found but not yet identified.
Prosecutors said they would appeal against a decision by a judge on Tuesday to allow Schettino to return home, saying he may seek to flee.
We do not understand why the judge took this decision and we don't agree with it, an official from the prosecutor's office in Grosseto said.
In the ruling, the judge said Schettino had shown incredible carelessness and a total inability to manage the successive phases of the emergency, only sounding the alarm 30 to 40 minutes after the initial impact.
He had abandoned the ship and remained on shore in a state of complete inertia for more than an hour, watching the ship sink, the ruling said. No serious attempt was made by the captain to return even close to the ship in the immediate aftermath of abandoning the Costa Concordia.
A dramatic recording of a coastguard official angrily ordering Schettino to return to the ship to direct rescue operations has transfixed Italy and made a media hero out of the straight-talking coast guard captain Gregorio De Falco.
Schettino is accused of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck by sailing too close to shore and abandoning ship before all his passengers and crew scrambled off.
He has denied the charges and told magistrates on Tuesday he believed he should be credited with saving hundreds, if not thousands of lives because he brought the ship close to shore after it hit a rock, his lawyer Bruno Leporatti said.
The ship foundered after striking a rock as dinner was being served on Friday night. The owners say the captain swung inshore to take a bow to the islanders, who included a retired Italian admiral. Investigators say it was within 150 metres of shore.
Most of the passengers and crew survived despite hours of chaos and confusion after the collision. The alarm was raised not by an SOS from the ship but mobile phone calls from passengers on board to Italian police on the mainland.
(Writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Rosalind Russell)