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Worsening weather threatens Costa Concordia wreck

Workers risk their lives to find the 21 people who are still missing. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

Updated at 7:30 p.m. ET: Italian authorities hope to stabilize 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 ton ship capsized off the Tuscan coast, hopes of finding anyone alive in the partially submerged hulk have all but disappeared.

Eleven people are known to have died and 21 people are still unaccounted for out of more than 4,200 passengers and crew aboard when the ship struck a reef just yards from the shoreline.

In the wake of the accident, Carnival Corporation, parent company of Costa Cruises and nine leading cruise lines around the world, announced Thursday plans for a comprehensive audit and review of all safety and emergency response procedures across all of the company's cruise lines.

"While I have every confidence in the safety of our vessels and the professionalism of our crews, this review will evaluate all practices and procedures to make sure that this kind of accident doesn't happen again," said Micky Arison, Carnival Corporation's chairman and CEO, in a statement.

Most cruise ships put emphasis on safety

Attention is now turning to how to remove 2,300 tons of fuel aboard the ship, 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 meters below the reef it is now on, creating a major hazard to the environment in one of Europe's largest natural marine parks

Updated at 3:40 p.m. ET:

Minutes after the Costa Concordia struck a rock, a crew member told the Italian coast guard there was no emergency on board the ship, according to an audio recording aired on Sky TG 24, an all-news channel in Italy.

The crew member is believed to be an officer, but not Capt. Francesco Schettino, NBC News reported.

The conversation started about 30 minutes after the Concordia ran aground and was the first between the coast guard and the cruise liner.

"Good evening Costa Concordia, please, do you have problems on board?," a coast guard official asks the bridge.

The crew member  replies: "We've had a blackout, we are checking the conditions on board."

The coast guard asks: "What kind of a problem? Is it just something with the generator? The police ... have received a phone call from the relatives of a sailor who said that during the dinner everything was falling on his head."

The crew member says some passengers were already wearing life jackets, and repeated there had been a blackout. "We are checking the conditions on board."

REUTERS/Zhurnal Tv via Reuters TV

Costa Concordia crew member Dominica Cemortan gestures in this still image from a Jan. 17 television interview. Cemortan defended the captain's actions, saying he helped to save the lives of passengers.

Italian news reports say prosecutors want to speak to Dominica Cermotan of Moldova. Cermotan, a 25-year-old hostess who reportedly was working for Costa on the Concordia, said on her Facebook page that she wasn't on duty the night of the grounding but was with Schettino, other officers and the cruise director on the bridge. She said she was called to help with translations of instructions for how the small number of Russian passengers should evacuate.

She defended Schettino, telling Moldova's Jurnal TV that "he did a great thing, he saved over 3,000 lives."

"We were looking for them, searching for them (the Russians)," she said in the TV interview. "We heard them all crying, shouting in all languages."

Prosecutor Francesco Verusio declined to comment on whether he was seeking Cermotan as a witness, citing the ongoing investigation.

On Thursday, rescue teams resumed the search for victims from the Concordia disaster before the weather turns and salvage crews need to start pumping fuel from the wreck. The search is expected to focus on the fourth deck, around an evacuation assembly point where seven of the bodies found so far were located. NBC News' Michelle Kosinski reports that the search team has been using sonar to look at the sea floor as well.

A scuba team was poised to go inside the wrecked Italian cruise liner, Kosinski reported Thursday morning.

One of the specialist diving crews said on Thursday the available window to complete the search could be as small as 12-24 hours although the chief spokesman of the rescue services denied that any deadline had been set and said the situation was still evolving.

The Costa Serena, the sister ship of the Costa Concordia, passed the partially-sunken liner on Wednesday evening. International cruise goers put on a brave face as Costa's first Mediterranean tour since last week's tragedy set sail out of the same port near Rome as the doomed luxury liner.

Vincenzo Pinto / AFP - Getty Images

The Costa Serena, background, passes sister ship Costa Concordia on Jan. 18 off the coast of Italy's Isola del Giglio (Giglio island). International cruise goers put on a brave face as Costa's first Mediterranean tour since last week's tragedy set sail out of the same port near Rome as the doomed luxury liner.

Crew members returning home have begun speaking out about the chaotic evacuation, saying the captain sounded the alarm too late and didn't give orders or instructions about how to evacuate passengers. Eventually, crew members started lowering lifeboats on their own.

"They asked us to make announcements to say that it was electrical problems and that our technicians were working on it and to not panic," French steward Thibault Francois told France-2 television Thursday. "I told myself this doesn't sound good."

He said the captain took too long to react and that eventually his boss told him to start escorting passengers to lifeboats. "No, there were no orders from the management," he said.

Identifying victims
On Thursday, seven of the dead were identified by authorities: French passengers Jeanne Gannard, Pierre Gregoire, Francis Servil, 71, and Jean-Pierre Micheaud, 61; Peruvian crew member Thomas Alberto Costilla Mendoza; Spanish passenger Guillermo Gual, 68, and Italian passenger Giovanni Masia, who news reports said would have turned 86 next week and was buried in Sardinia on Thursday.

The first victim was identified on Wednesday as crewmember Sandor Feher, 38, of Hungary. 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.

The children of Barbara and Jerry Heil, a Minnesota couple aboard the ship that have been missing since the accident, said Wednesday in a blog posting that their parents are not among those passengers whose bodies were recently recovered.

DigitalGlobe

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.

Captain's 'complete inertia'
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. 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."

John H. Hickey, a maritime law expert, called the actions of Costa Concordia Capt. Francesco Schettino "disgusting" and "unforgivable," saying Schettino should have been the "last human being off that ship." The Costa Concordia cruise ship capsized off the coast of Italy Friday night, leaving at least 11 dead, with more than 20 people still missing.

According to Schettino's lawyer, the captain has admitted bringing the ship too close to shore but he denies bearing sole responsibility for the accident and says other factors may have played a role.

Schettino was always available to provide information to coast guard and rescue services throughout the evacuation, even when he was not on board the vessel, his lawyer says.

Schettino 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.

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.

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Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.