- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2012

GIGLIO, Italy (AP) — Italian coast guard divers searching the submerged part of the Costa Concordia on Sunday found the bodies of two elderly men still in their life jackets, authorities said, raising to five the death toll after the luxury cruise liner ran aground and tipped over off the Tuscan coast.

Divers scouring the bowels of the ship in the murky, cold sea discovered the bodies at the emergency gathering point near the restaurant where passengers were dining when the ship carrying more than 4,200 people hit a reef or rock near the island of Giglio, coast guard Cmdr. Cosimo Nicastro said.

The discovery reduced to 15 the number of people still unaccounted for after an Italian who worked in cabin service was pulled from the wreckage Sunday and a South Korean couple on their honeymoon were rescued late Saturday in the unsubmerged part of the liner when a team of rescuers heard their screams.

“We are still searching” for any bodies, “but (also) in the hope that there might have been an air pocket” to allow the survival of others, Cmdr. Nicastro told Sky TG24 TV dockside.

Authorities are holding the Italian captain for investigation of suspected manslaughter and abandoning his ship, among other possible charges. According to the Italian navigation code, a captain who abandons a ship in danger can face up to 12 years in prison.

The ship’s chaotic and panicked evacuation has added to the difficulty in tracking down survivors — with six of those unaccounted for crew members and the others passengers. Two of the unaccounted for passengers are American, the U.S. Embassy in Rome said.

In the first hours after the accident late Friday night, three bodies were found in the waters near the ship. The victims discovered Sunday were two elderly men who were wearing life vests, said coast guard Cmdr. Francesco Paolillo.

“The divers had to remove the life vests to get the bodies out,” he said, because they could have floated away. Their nationalities were not immediately released.

The divers’ search through the ship, which is lying on its side with a huge gash, was already dangerous because of the risk the vessel could suddenly move and sink into waters over a nearby lower sea bed.

The divers’ safety increasingly was threatened by floating objects in the belly of the nearly 1,000-foot-long liner, as well as muck drastically reducing visibility, Cmdr. Nicastro said.

“There are tents, mattresses, other objects moving which can get tangled in the divers’ equipment,” Cmdr. Nicastro said. Officials were going to huddle soon to see how long the underwater search could continue safely, he said.

Divers said they were using a kind of long cord they hook near the point of entrance and unroll as they work so they can find their way out when finished.

Prosecutor Francesco Verusio confirmed reports that prosecutors are investigating allegations the cruise liner’s captain, Francesco Schettino, abandoned the stricken liner before all the passengers had escaped.

Asked Sunday by Sky TG24 about the accusations, Grosseto prosecutor Francesco Verusio replied, “Unfortunately, I must confirm that circumstance.”

A French couple who boarded the Concordia in Marseille, Ophelie Gondelle and David Du Pays of Marseille, told the Associated Press they saw the captain in a lifeboat, covered by a blanket, well before all the passengers were off the ship. They insisted on telling a reporter what they saw, so incensed that — according to them — the captain had abandoned the ship before everyone had been evacuated.

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