It’s just after 7.30am in the picturesque port of Giglio. The sky is a vibrant blue despite the winter chill and the crystal-clear water is calm.

On one side of the bay, TV presenters are giving viewers from Hong Kong to Los Angeles the latest update on the Costa Concordia disaster as the 114,137-tonne vessel still lies on its side more than a week after it ran aground.

There is a flurry of activity at the opposite end of the port, too. Grubby salvage workers dressed in orange overalls from the Dutch firm SMIT are tossing down their first cappuccino at the Caffe Ferraro as police, firefighters and diving teams prepare for a new day in the search-and-rescue mission.

Meet the team. There are members of the Italian navy, Coast Guard, Carabinieri police, forest police, provincial police, municipal police, firefighters, even the Guardia di Finanza — responsible for fighting financial crime and smuggling — as well as specialist divers from the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corp.

“We have been working through the night and we will not stop,” a Coast Guard spokesman tells me. “Our priority is speed, safety and efficiency.”

On Sunday divers discovered a 13th victim — a woman’s body found on the seventh deck in the submerged area of the vessel’s stern. A day earlier another female body wearing a life jacket was found in a corridor on the fifth deck after navy divers blasted new holes in the ship’s hull with small charges. As the death toll rises, at least 20 people from several different countries are still missing.

No one doubts the dedication or professionalism of the team. But as I was tallying the various agencies in front of the pier — a colleague counted 17 altogether — locals began questioning whether too much time was being spent searching for dead bodies and not enough time planning to stop the 2400 tonnes of fuel which could escape from the ship.

“People here are surprised,” one hotel owner confides. “They are spending a lot of energy [on the search and rescue] but with the splendid weather we have had the results are not that startling. There is petroleum, oil for the motors and lubricants on that ship. We are worried about the pollution.”

The threat is significant. Giglio is an island sanctuary, a natural reserve known for its dolphins, marine turtles, various types of fish and bird species.  An oil slick would not only threaten the Tuscan coast and other nearby islands but also the stunning coastline to the north including the popular Cinque Terre region.

“If that fuel leaks out it will be a disaster for our sea,” says Samantha Brizzi, president of Giglio’s tourism office known as the Pro Loco. “Our water is the cleanest in Italy. We got an award in 2008 and this island is part of the Tuscan archipelago. I am very concerned for the environment and the economy.”

Despite the scale of the tragedy, it took the Italian government a week to formally declare the Giglio disaster a state of emergency and appoint Franco Gabrielli, head of the Civil Protection department, to head the search and rescue operation.

The delay was partly due to a legal anomaly but drew fire from Gabrielli’s predecessor, Guido Bertolaso, who led the nation’s emergency operations after the L’Aquila earthquake. Hailed as a hero, he later resigned after he was implicated in a scandal over government contracts.

“The firefighters have done an extraordinary job, and so has the Coast Guard , the Navy and the Finance Police,” Bertolaso said. “But when there is no direction, when there is no one in charge, errors are made and there are delays.”

Facing a critical media for the first time on Saturday, Gabrielli swiftly took control and put an end to the fragmented communication that was being fed to journalists about the operation. He also ordered a detailed scientific report to establish whether it would be safe for salvage workers to begin extracting the fuel from the ship’s 23 tanks while divers continued to search for the missing. So far there has been minimal leakage and both aspects of the mission are expected to proceed on Monday.

Meanwhile, new questions are being asked about whether the blame for the disaster should be shared between captain Franco Schettino and the owner of the vessel, Costa Cruises.

Costa Cruises has said that Schettino’s decision to steer the Costa Concordia within 150 metres of the shore at Giglio was unauthorised. But in new evidence that emerged on Sunday, Schettino told investigators that he and other captains had often carried out these “salute” manoeuvres and he had regularly sailed close to islands including Capri as well as the Sorrento coastline south of Naples.

He said the company backed the moves and considered them good for “publicity”.

As the war of words continues, divers are going from one cabin to another in a bid to find the missing and shed new light on the murky accounts of the ship’s collision with the rocks in the port of Giglio.

Plenty of tourists are also arriving on the island to see the ship for themselves. American tourist Luigi Cassone came for a look at the disaster at the weekend and had no doubt Schettino was responsible.

“It is appalling,” Cassone said. “This guy had his head up his arse.”

Peter Fray

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