Discuss as:

Divers find 16th body in cruise ship wreck

Recovery efforts at the site of the cruise ship disaster off the coast of Italy has entered a new phase Tuesday, with crews ready to remove oil from the wreckage. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

 

Updated at 11:10 a.m. ET: Officials say divers searching the toppled Costa Concordia have discovered another body in the submerged cruise ship.

The discovery on the third floor deck brings to 16 the number of bodies found since the Jan. 13 grounding. Officials at the Tuscan prefect's office said Tuesday they couldn't immediately confirm Italian news reports that the body was that of a woman.

At least six of the bodies remain unidentified, and are presumed to be among some of the 17 passengers and crew still unaccounted for.

On Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to Italy David Thorne was at Giglio's port with relatives of two missing Americans, Gerald and Barbara Heil of Minnesota. The Heil's children posted on their blog Monday that they are still waiting for word about their parents. The Heils are the only Americans missing in the wreck.

Divers, meanwhile, continued blasting holes inside the steel-hulled ship to ease access for crews searching for the missing. The search and rescue operation will continue in tandem with the fuel removal operation.

A large platform carrying a crane and other equipment hitched itself to the shipwreck, signaling the start of preliminary operations to remove a half-million gallons of fuel from the ship's tanks before it leaks into the pristine Tuscan sea.

Actual pumping of the oil isn't expected to begin until Saturday, but officials from the Dutch shipwreck salvage firm Smit were working on the bow of the Concordia on Tuesday, making preparations to remove the fuel.

Officials have identified an initial six tanks that will be tapped, located in a relatively easy-to-reach area of the ship. Franco Gabrielli, head of the national civil protection agency, told reporters Tuesday that once the tanks are emptied, 50 percent of the fuel aboard the ship will have been extracted.

The pumping will continue 24 hours a day barring rough seas or technical glitches in this initial phase, he said.

Smit officials say the first thing divers will do is drill holes into the tanks and attach valves onto them. The sludge-like oil will then be heated and hoses attached to the valves to suck out the oil as seawater is pumped into displace it.

"This is a complicated operation," Gabrielli warned. Smit has estimated the extraction operation could last a month.

Giglio and its waters are part of a protected seven-island marine park, favored by VIPs and known for its clear waters and porpoises, dolphins and whales.

The disaster prompted the U.N. cultural organization to ask the Italian government to restrict access of large cruise ships to Venice, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO charged that the liners cause water tides that erode building foundations, pollute the waterways and are an eyesore.

DigitalGlobe

The Costa Concordia, carrying more than 4,200 passengers, ran aground Jan. 13 off the coast of Italy. At least 15 people died in the accident, and rescuers continue to search for others missing.

On Monday, islanders and officials spotted an oil film on the water about 300 meters (yards) from the wreck. Absorbent panels were put around the oil to soak up the substance and officials said Tuesday it was a very thin film that didn't present any significant levels of toxicity.

Gabrielli said he had formally asked Costa Crociere SpA, the owner of the Concordia, to come up with a plan for what to do with the innards of the ship that are floating away — the tables and chairs and other furniture that are knocking into divers and being hauled away by barge on a daily basis. And he said he had asked provincial authorities to designate a site on the mainland where the material can be dumped.

Early Tuesday, amid continued outrage by passengers of the chaotic evacuation, Costa promised to refund the full cost of the cruise, reimburse all travel expenses to and from the ship, all on-board expenses and any medical expenses incurred as a result of the grounding.

"Every effort will be made to return the valuables left in the cabin safe," Costa said in a statement.

The company is facing more questions over its share of the blame for the shipwreck.

The criminal probe into the ship's doomed voyage may be widened, a lawyer for the ship's captain said Monday.

Survivors of the Costa Concordia are realizing the limits of their legal claims, as they signed away their rights when they bought their tickets. NBC's Kerry Sanders reports on what travelers should know.

Costa Cruises has not received any notification that it is being investigated, according to a company spokesman. The company will be forthright with investigators and has full faith in the magistrature, he added.

Captain Francesco Schettino is accused of steering the cruise ship too close to shore while performing a maneuver known as a "salute" in which liners draw up very close to land to make a display.

Schettino, who is charged with multiple manslaughter and with abandoning ship before the evacuation of passengers and crew was complete, has told prosecutors he had been instructed to perform the maneuver by operator Costa Cruises.

Pier Luigi Foschi, chairman and chief executive of Costa Cruises, has previously said that Schettino delayed issuing the SOS and evacuation orders and gave false information to the company headquarters.

Foschi, who visited Giglio Sunday, declined to respond to Schettino's allegation that he was instructed to perform the maneuver.

Related stories:

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.