Cruise ship death toll at 16 after another body found

Officials say divers searching the toppled Costa Concordia have discovered another body in the partly 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.

The discovery was made as a large platform carrying a crane and other equipment hitched itself to the shipwreck, signalling the start of preliminary operations to remove a half-million gallons of fuel from the ship's tanks.

Actual pumping of the oil isn't expected to begin until Saturday, and will continue in tandem with search and rescue operations.

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 per cent 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.

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

The Concordia ran aground and capsized off the Tuscan island of Giglio on Jan. 13 after the captain veered from his approved course and gashed the ship's hull on a reef, forcing the panicked evacuation of 4,200 passengers and crew.

So far 16 bodies have been found. Six of the badly decomposed bodies remain unidentified, and are presumed to be among some of the 17 passengers and crew still unaccounted for.

A New York lawyer is planning to file a class action lawsuit in Miami on behalf of hundreds of the Costa Concordia's passengers.

Mitchell Proner said they would be seeking upwards of 125,000 euros ($165,000 Cdn) per passenger of the ill-fated ship, more if there was loss of life.

Proner would not yet give specifics as to who exactly he represents, but he said it’s likely the defendants would be Costa Cruises, Carnival Cruises and possibly the ship's captain as well. Proner, working with Italian lawyers, is seeking to prove the cruise ship has a pattern of steering off course in the past in order to salute the inhabitants of various Italian islands.

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.

On Monday, islanders and officials spotted an oil film on the water about 300 metres 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.

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.

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 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.

Costa is a unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp., the world's biggest cruise operator.

It has blamed the captain, Francesco Schettino, for the disaster, saying he made an unauthorized and unapproved deviation from the route. Schettino remains under house arrest facing accusations of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship before all passengers were off.

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.

With files from CBC News