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Bad Weather Suspends Cruise Ship Rescue Effort

Bad weather forced divers to suspend rescue operations Monday for missing passengers and crew members from a luxury liner that crashed into a rocky reef off the Italian coast of Tuscany.

The death toll stood at six following the discovery of the body of an elderly man in a submerged section of the liner, the Costa Concordia. Of the 4,200 people who were on board, some 16 are still unaccounted for, including two Americans.

Family members issued a statement Monday confirming that Barbara and Jerry Heil of White Bear Lake, Minn., a suburb of St. Paul, are among the missing. The statement says the family is working closely with the U.S. Embassy in Italy and that they are confident "everything is being done to find our parents."

The ship's captain has been arrested and faces multiple charges, including allegations that he abandoned ship before all the passengers were rescued.

Investigation Under Way

Investigators are already analyzing the ship's black box to determine how and why the Costa Concordia veered off course close to the shore of Giglio Island.

Investigators will be able to call on a wealth of documentation provided by passengers. Many made videos with their mobile phones as they waited to get off the damaged vessel.

A video they shot by Ronald Patricio Gonzales of Chile showed hundreds of passengers wearing life vests crowded on a deck. The scene was one of confusion, with people shouting and looking terrified — and nobody telling them what to do.

Another passenger, Claudio Masia, said the ship had tilted so much that it was no longer possible to lower the lifeboats.

"We were left to our own devices," Masia said. He added that family members huddled on the keel and eventually went down a rope ladder as rescuers arrived in boats. "My mother, two children, my wife and my nephew, but I can't find my father," Masia said. "I don't know where he is. He had wanted to take this cruise for so long."

The body of 86-year-old Giovanni Masia, wearing a life vest, was found by divers Sunday afternoon.

The Equivalent Of A Fly-By?

Captain Francesco Schettino was already on shore hours before the last passengers were rescued from the tilting ship, according to officials. Coast Guard officials said they repeatedly ordered him back on board but he refused. He was arrested on suspicion of multiple manslaughter, shipwreck, tampering with evidence and abandoning ship.

Schettino, meanwhile, said he didn't leave the liner early, telling Mediaset television that he had done everything he could to save lives. "We were the last ones to leave the ship," he said.

Costa Cruises, the shipping company that owns the Costa Concordia, issued a statement saying it appears the captain made errors in judgment, and the lead prosecutor has also been critical.

"It was a hazardous maneuver," said the prosecutor Francesco Verusio. "He got too close to the island, some 150 yards from the coast. The captain gave the alarm around 10:42 p.m. [local time], one hour after the collision."

Verusio said that bringing the ship so close to Giglio was part of a maritime practice — the equivalent of a fly-by. The sirens are sounded in a salute to show off the brightly-lit luxury liner to the islanders.

Fears Of An Environmental Disaster

The shipwreck took place in a stretch of the Mediterranean said to be the biggest designated marine park in Europe. The rocky reefs are a scuba divers paradise, a natural habitat of dolphins and a protected area for many fish species.

Now there is fear of an environmental disaster.

Officials said none of the ship's 500,000 gallons of fuel has leaked so far. Italy's Environment Ministry has already sent four specially equipped vessels to the area with containment barriers. A Dutch firm has been called in to help extract the fuel from the ship's tanks.

Environment Minister Corrado Clini said the passage of massive luxury liners in this stretch of sea has gone on too long.

"These floating condominiums, which offer thrills for tourists, are a serious danger for the environment," Clini said. "We have to move quickly to prevent these huge ships — which are not equipped with a double hull — from entering these delicate areas."

The minister will attend an emergency on-site meeting with experts to assess how to remove the shipwreck as quickly and as safely as possible.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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