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Owner of Costa Concordia pledges assistance to passengers

Authorities must decide what to do with the stricken 115,000 ton cruise ship. NBC's Mark Potter reports.

Updated at 8 p.m. ET: Carnival Corp., whose luxury liner Costa Concordia capsized off the coast of Italy last Friday, said it was providing lodging, refunds and other support to people affected by the accident, even as some public relations executives criticized the company's handling of the situation.

"I give my personal assurance that we will take care of each and every one of our guests, crew and their families affected by this tragic event," said Carnival Chief Executive Micky Arison in a statement late on Wednesday — five days after the incident that left 11 people dead and 22 missing.

Costa Cruise Lines, a unit of Carnival and operator of the ship, has been arranging lodging and transportation for passengers and crew members to return home, and has offered assistance and counseling as needed. It has also begun refunding passengers their cruise fares and all costs incurred while on board.

The company also said it was contacting every passenger and crew member or their family and will be addressing personal possessions lost on board.

Public relations experts have chastised Carnival for being slow to address the disaster and vague about its response and efforts to prevent similar incidents in the future.

"There are 101 ways they could have more effectively handled the communication around the crisis," said Evan Nierman, founder of public relations firm Red Banyan Group.

Carnival would have benefited, Nierman said, if Arison were on the ground in Italy, being seen talking to victims and crew and taking charge of the situation.

The shifting ship is creating dangerous problems for the searchers who need to blast holes in the hull. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

Updated at 5:30 p.m. ET: The children of a Minnesota couple missing since last week's Costa Concordia disaster in Italy said Wednesday their parents are not among those passengers whose bodies were recently recovered.

Family members posted the information on their blog, and said they were praying that conditions at the stricken cruise ship would improve so authorities could resume search operations.

Jerry and Barbara Heil, of White Bear Lake, Minn., are the only Americans still unaccounted for. The Heils were among the passengers still listed as missing, according to an official tally released Wednesday by Italian authorities.

Family members, who had been waiting to hear the identities of five bodies recovered Tuesday, said on the blog that they received confirmation that their parents were not among them.

Italian rescue workers suspended operations early Wednesday after the ship shifted slightly on the rocks, creating concerns about the safety of divers and firefighters searching for the missing.

"We continue to pray and hope for advantageous conditions which will allow the search and rescue operations to continue," the Heil family said on the blog. "While it is certainly hard for us to see the recovery efforts stall due to the unstable conditions present at and around the Costa Concordia, we are also very concerned for the safety of the Italian Coast Guard as they continue to put forth a heroic effort in trying to find those who remain missing.

"We are grateful to all of those who are working so hard to find our parents," the statement said. 

Costa Concordia captain Francesco Schettino has reportedly now told officials that he tripped and fell into a lifeboat shortly after the ship began taking on water near Giglio Island.

Updated at 3:30 p.m. ET: Francesco Schettino, captain of the doomed Costa Concordia that partially sunk on Friday, said he did not abandon ship, according to a transcript published by Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper and reported by the Associated Press.

"I did not abandon a ship with 100 people on board ... the ship suddenly listed and we were thrown into the water," Schettino reportedly said during a recorded telephone conversation with Capt. Gregorio De Falco of the Italian coast guard in Livorno.

The transcript also showed the coast guard official urgently commanding the captain to return to the cruise ship after he had abandoned it.

"You go on board! Is that clear? Do you hear me?" the Coast Guard officer shouted as Schettino sat safe in a life raft and frantic passengers struggled to escape the listing ship. "It is an order. Don't make any more excuses. You have declared 'Abandon ship.' Now I am in charge." 

The officer confronted him with an expletive-laced order to get back on board, which has quickly entered the Italian lexicon. The four-word phrase has become a Twitter hashtag and Italian media have shown photos of T-shirts bearing the command. 

Criminal charges including manslaughter and abandoning ship are expected to be filed by prosecutors shortly. Schettino faces a possible 12 years in prison on the abandoning ship charge alone.

Updated at 2:50 p.m. ET: A German woman listed as missing from the Costa Concordia was located alive in Germany.

Gertrud Goergens alerted police in Germany that she was alive and well, according to the Associated Press, citing the prefect's office in Grosetto, Italy.

Goergens was removed from the official list of missing late Wednesday. Twenty-three passengers are still unaccounted for:

Dayana Arlotti, Italy; William M. Arlotti, Italy; Elisabeth Bauer, Germany; Michael M. Blemand, France; Maria Dintrono, Italy; Horst Galle, Germany; Jeanne Gannard, France; Christina Mathi Ganz, Germany; Norbert Josef Ganz, Germany; Pierre Gregoire, France; Gabriele Grube, Germany; Barbara Heil, United States; Gerald Heil, United States; Egon Hoer, Germany; Mylene Litzler, France; Margarethe Neth, Germany; Inge Schall, Germany; Siglinde Stumpf, Germany; Brunhild Werp, Germany; Josef Werp, Germany; Margrit Schroeter, Germany; Maria Grazia Trecarichi, Italy; Luisa Antonia Virzi, Italy.

Three crew members are also missing: Girolamo Giuseppe, Italy; Russel Terence Rebello, India; Erika Fani Soriamolina, Peru. 

Eleven bodies have been recovered, though only one has been publicly identified: Crew member Sandor Feher, 38, of Hungary. 

Hungarian ministry spokesman Jozsef Toth said Feher's body was found inside the wreck and identified by his mother in the Italian city of Grosetto.

Jozsef Balog, a pianist who worked with Feher, a violinist, told the Budapest newspaper Blikk that Feher was wearing a lifejacket when he decided to return to his cabin to pack his violin. Feher was last seen on deck en route to a lifeboat. According to Balog, Feher helped put lifejackets on several crying children before returning to his cabin.

Captain Francesco Schettino, the man accused of causing the deadly wreck of a cruise ship off the coast of Italy, is out of jail and under house arrest, as additional bodies were found aboard the capsized ship. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

Separately, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Wednesday he will hold a hearing to review cruise ship safety. The exact date has not been determined, but Mica has requested Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) to aid in the investigation.

"The Costa Concordia tragedy is a wake-up call for the United States and international maritime organizations to carefully review and make certain we have in place all the appropriate standards to ensure passengers' safety on cruise ships," Mica said in a statement.

Updated at 11:40 a.m. ET: 

The Costa Concordia took a nearly identical route past Giglio Island in August to the one Friday that led to the sinking of the ship, NBC News has learned.

Adam Smallman, editor of shipping magazine Lloyd’s List, said the route taken in August, based on satellite tracking, was “authorized by the company and the coast guard.”

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The Costa Concordia ran aground Jan. 13 off the coast of Italy, resulting in the evacuation of thousands of passengers as the ship began heavily listing.

"Our assessment of the route this vessel took (in August) is it must have come perilously close, and I mean possibly within touching distance of the rock that it hit this time ... which the company is saying wholly unauthorized in terms of its proximity to the island," Smallman said.

The search for missing passengers aboard the Costa Concordia is on hold over fears that the ship is shifting, making rescue efforts more dangerous.

The captain in charge of the specialist divers searching the stricken Costa Concordia tells NBC News that they need to blow four more holes in it to gain access to the bottom of the cruise ship. Asked about the search for bodies -- some 23 people are unaccounted for according to Reuters -- the captain said there was visual evidence suggesting some bodies were at the bottom of the sea.

NBC News, citing officials involved in the rescue effort, reported that on Wednesday the ship had sunk 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) at the front and 1 meter (3.2 feet) at the back, raising concerns that the vessel may break up in the middle.

The coast guard is monitoring shifts with sensors installed by divers at the start of the rescue mission, and that movement is its main concern as it could trap divers. By late afternoon, officials still did not have enough data to reassure them that the ship had stopped resettling.

"The visibility is awful. Yesterday I couldn't see my hand in front of my face," Giuseppe Minciotti, director of a school for cave divers in the northern city of Verona and part of the specialist team deployed on the wreck, told Reuters.

"I grabbed a piece of floating debris, and I couldn't see what it was until I had my head out of the water. It was a woman's shoe," he said.  "We're waiting today for new openings to be made, and we'll see if the visibility is any better in those points."

Jim Fee, a yacht skipper for three decades, discusses the potential ecological problems related to the Costa Concordia disaster. NBC's Harry Smith reports.

Coast guard spokesman Cosimo Nicastro said work would focus on an evacuation assembly area on the partially submerged fourth deck, where most of the 11 bodies found so far have been located.

"It's where we have already found seven of the bodies and it's where the passengers and crew gathered to abandon ship," Nicastro said.

Fire services spokesman Luca Cari said the search was suspended at about 8 a.m. local time (11 p.m. ET) after a shift of a few inches, posing a potential threat to diving teams operating in the submerged spaces of the ship.

There was no word on when work might resume. 

The Costa Concordia had more than 4,200 passengers and crew on board when it slammed into a reef Friday off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio after Capt. Francesco Schettino made an unauthorized maneuver from the ship's programmed course — allegedly to show off the luxury liner to the island's residents.

Rescue workers discovered five bodies on Tuesday, bringing the death toll of the Costa Concordia accident to 11. 

The adult bodies, believed to be passengers, were all wearing life jackets and were found in the rear of the ship near an emergency evacuation point, according to Nicastro.

Schettino, whose actions during the disaster have come under intense scrutiny as details of his role on the night of the disaster emerge, appeared before a judge in Grosseto, Tuscany, where he was questioned for three hours. Schettino remains under house arrest.

During a heated conversation the Italian coast guard told the captain of the Costa Concordia to go back to the ship. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

Schettino's lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, said urine and hair samples have been taken from Schettino, apparently to determine if he might have consumed alcohol or used drugs before the accident.

Leporatti also told a news conference in Grosetto that house arrest made sense given there was no evidence the captain intended to flee. He cited the fact that the captain coordinated the evacuation from the shore after leaving the ship.

"He never left the scene," Leporatti said. "There has never been a danger of flight."

Leporatti added the captain was upset by the accident, contrary to depictions in the Italian media that he did not appear to show regret.

"He is a deeply shaken man, not only for the loss of his ship, which for a captain is a grave thing, but above all for what happened and the loss of human life," the lawyer said.

Martino Pellegrino, a crew-member on Costa Concordia, described Schettino as "authoritarian," "stubborn" and "egocentric," in an interview with Italian newspaper La Republica on Tuesday.

"Schettino likes to be in control of the ship's wheel," he told the newspaper.

Also on Tuesday, a transcript of a conversation between Schettino and Capt. Gregorio De Falco of the Italian coast guard in Livorno, showed the coast guard official urgently commanding the captain to return to the cruise ship after he had abandoned it.

"There are people trapped on board," De Falco said. "Now you go with your boat under the prow on the starboard side. There is a pilot ladder. You will climb that ladder and go on board. You go on board and then you will tell me how many people there are. Is that clear? I'm recording this conversation, Cmdr. Schettino ..."

Passengers continued to make their way home, with consistent claims that crew members were ill-prepared to handle an emergency evacuation.

"The crew members had no specialized training — the security man doubled as the cook and bartender, so obviously they did not know what to do," passenger Claudia Fehlandt told Chile's Channel 7 television after being embraced by relatives at Santiago's airport.

"In fact, the lifeboats, even the ones that did get lowered, they did not know how to lower them and they cut the ropes with axes," she said.

Msnbc.com staff, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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