As Italians braced for another bout of the big freeze on Monday, the Costa Concordia cruise ship seems to have been relegated to the scrapheap of our fast-changing  daily news cycle.

There has been a bit going on. At least 10 people were killed in Italy as extreme temperatures and heavy snowfalls swept Europe. Rome itself was paralysed as a rare bout of snow and ice caused blackouts and transport disruptions that were expected to close schools, shops and government offices on Monday.

Temperatures were expected to drop well below zero overnight from Milan to Naples on Sunday and emergency services were bracing for a new round of calls as headlines said central Italy had been brought “to its knees”.

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Still off the coast of Tuscany, the massive Costa Concordia remains wedged on the rocks it struck near the island of Giglio on the night of January 13 and there are fears that fuel leakage from the stricken vessel may yet cause an environmental disaster.

Seventeen people have been confirmed dead and 15 others, including a five-year-old girl and her father, are still missing after the ship partially sank about 150 metres off the coast of this picturesque summer haven. Giglio, known for its crystal-clear water, birdlife, fish and marine turtles, draws up to 15,000 people in the tourist season.

Choppy seas and strong winds have so far frustrated attempts by the Dutch salvage firm SMIT to extract the 2400 tonnes of fuel from the ship’s tanks and local tourism operators and hotel owners on the island nature reserve are getting edgy as the ship lies precariously on a rock ledge in front of them all.

“The port must go back to what it was for the locals before the tourist season,” an anxious mayor Sergio Ortelli told journalists on Sunday.

Nearly as anxious are the lawyers representing the Costa Concordia’s controversial captain, Francesco Schettino, as they return to court on Monday in a bid to have him freed from house arrest. Schettino, who earned headlines such as “Captain Chicken” and “Captain Coward” around the world after he fled Italy’s worst shipping disaster, is facing charges of multiple counts of manslaughter, causing a disaster and abandoning ship.

The 52-year-old captain has been silent as he is held under house arrest in his hometown of Meta di Sorrento, south of Naples, facing up to 15 years in prison. His company Costa Cruises, which suspended him after he jumped ship ahead of many of his passengers and crew, is facing several lawsuits including a $460 million US suit for 500 clients from Russia, France, Germany and elsewhere.

Now the captain has a new problem — a blonde 25-year-old Moldovan who says she is in love with him. Domnica Cemortan was interviewed by prosecutors in Grosseto for almost six hours last week as reports surfaced that her lingerie and other belongings were found by police divers in his cabin.

“I love him and it’s not right to destroy his reputation,” Cemortan apparently told investigators. “Everyone is attacking him.”

Cemortan, a former dancer who had worked for Costa Cruises, was not officially listed among the passengers and was seen wining and dining with the captain shortly before the accident occurred at about 9.40pm. She was later on the bridge, she said, when the captain wanted to do his ill-fated “salute” or sail past the island.

The 52-year-old captain instead misjudged the move and collided with rocks 150 metres of the shore ripping a huge hole in the hull of the 114,137-tonne vessel.

Salvage workers are waiting for calmer waters so they can begin removing the diesel fuel from the vessel’s tanks.

And Schettino may also be looking for a little calm on the home front — from his wife, Fabiola, who told one gossip magazine “my husband is not a monster” — before Cemortan revealed her love for him.

The captain’s life is fast becoming the kind of Mediterranean cliché that may leave him depending on the loyalty of his 80-year-old mother, Rosa, whom he telephoned on the night of the disaster. Meanwhile hundreds of outraged passengers and abandoned crew members are looking for answers. And millions of dollars in compensation.

With lawsuits now under way in the US, France and Italy, this is going to be a long and costly process that will ensure that the Costa Concordia will not be out of the headlines for long.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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