Divers describe a dark, silent world turned upside down


THE Italian navy divers work in pairs underwater; one with a light and video camera, to record what they find and how they find it, and another with two lights. They are roped to each other for safety and one is roped to another diver above – just in case.
The dark, dreamlike world inside the sunken part of the Costa Concordia is strange even to them, used as they are to murky depths. “The ship is full of carpet,” says junior lieutenant Marco Saponangelo.
“You will see the carpet not on the floor but on the ceiling, floating in the water and rippling, like smoke. Whenever you look back, as you are swimming, everything has changed because everything is moving … It is cold and it is dark, and you lose track.”
The worst, he says, is seeing documents and clothes floating by, because that is a reminder of the human loss.
Lieutenant Saponangelo is one of 12 divers from the navy’s rapid-response team working with divers from the Italian Coast Guard and the Vigili del Fuoco – firemen who do emergency rescues – to find those missing. The mountain rescue team has studded the part of the ship still out of the water with grip-points and cables to help workers clamber over its curves.
Lieutenant Saponangelo helped put charges on to the boat to blow open access to areas thought to contain missing passengers. Using tape embedded with plastic explosive he taped areas 1 metre square, retreated 80 metres himself for safety and then detonated: “We send the electricity and it goes boom!”
He says the charges were small but the booms ripped across the normally quiet port as it woke to a pink dawn and sent hundreds of gulls screaming into the sky. The blasts cut neat holes, windows into the watery graveyard. A 20-metre opening they created in the stern just under the waterline allowed rescuers to find the most recent five bodies on Tuesday.
It was loud because they were blowing up a window that was meant to be unbreakable, he said; they go in through windows because they can see what is waiting for them. “If you open a door and don’t know what is there, it could be something heavy and dangerous, especially with the ship upside down,” he says.
When working, they communicate with tugs on the ropes. Two or three pulls mean “Coming back.” Five means: “Come to the surface.”
It is five for finding a body as this must first be reported to the commander and noted by state lawyers. Then the Italian coast guard must come in to remove the person. The place must be marked: “If we find a body, we have chemical lights, so they can know where they are. We break the bar and attach it so that the body is easy to find again.”
If they think the body is hard to find, they use a technique like Ariadne’s thread: “We attach the body to a reel [of cable], so that we can feel our way back.”
In the first day or two, as they searched the area above water, their hearts would beat faster as they saw what looked like a person but it usually turned out only to be a life-vest with its lights still blinking.
They work for only an hour at a stretch as the task is demanding and dangerous. To add to the peril, the ship is sitting on an undersea ledge and it is feared that choppy weather due to arrive today could send it over the edge – and completely under the water.
Rescue teams are finely balancing the safety of their men, the human need to find the 21 people who remain missing, and the environment’s need for salvage of the ship’s fuel before the ship’s tanks rupture and spread still greater catastrophe.
The final two goals are hard to reconcile, as the drilling and heavy machinery needed to empty the tanks makes continued recovery of humans difficult, if not impossible.
Says Cari Luca, a spokesman for the 130 firemen involved in the project: “In the next hours or days they are trying to find a solution to do both at the same time.”
But hope of finding more survivors is well-nigh gone, he says, despite the fact that not all parts of the ship still in the air have been closely searched.
“Without water for four days, it is impossible for someone who is unconscious to survive.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.