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2 more deaths on stricken Italian cruise ship; 15 still missing

January 15, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Divers found the bodies of two elderly people in the submerged part of the Costa Concordia, which ran aground off Italy.

The discovery by Coast Guard divers on Sunday raises the death toll to five. The bodies were found at the emergency gathering point near the ship's restaurant, where passengers were dining when the ship hit a reef or rock near the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio.

Earlier Sunday, a third survivor was airlifted from the capsized hulk of the luxury cruise ship. Authorities say 15 people are still missing - nine passengers and six crew. U.S. officials say two Americans are among the missing passengers. The U.S. Embassy in Rome says of the 120 American passengers who were on the Mediterranean cruise, all but two have been accounted for.

A South Korean couple on their honeymoon were rescued late Saturday in the unsubmerged part of the liner when firefighters heard their screams.

Five people are confirmed dead after the huge ship carrying more than 4,200 people ran aground Friday night. The crash forced a chaotic and frightening evacuation.

The ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, is being investigated for manslaughter charges and is accused of abandoning his ship. Authorities say Schettino abandoned the stricken liner before all of the passengers had escaped.

A French couple who boarded the Concordia in Marseille told The Associated Press that they saw Schettino in a lifeboat, covered by a blanket, well before all the passengers were off the ship.

According to the Italian navigation code, a captain who abandons a ship in danger can face up to 12 years in prison.

Schettino says the ship hit rocks that weren't marked on his nautical charts, and that he did all that he could to save lives.

"We were navigating approximately 300 meters (yards) from the rocks," he told Mediaset television. "There shouldn't have been such a rock."

He claims he didn't leave the liner before all passengers were off, saying "we were the last ones to leave the ship."

But that wasn't the case. In addition to the three people recovered from on board by rescue crews Saturday night and Sunday, police divers and rescue crews on Sunday circled the wreckage searching for more of the 15 missing.

When the ship ran aground, it caused a 160-foot-long gash, flooding the ship with water and causing the ship to fall on its side.

Coast Guard spokesman Capt. Filippo Marini told Sky Italia TV that Coast Guard divers have recovered the so-called "black box" with the recording of the navigational details from a compartment now under water.

A Dutch firm has been called in to help extract the fuel from the Concordia's tanks before any leaks into the area's pristine waters, officials said. No leaks have so far been reported.

The terrifying escape from the luxury liner was straight out of a scene from "Titanic." Many passengers complained the crew didn't give them good directions on how to evacuate and once the emergency became clear, delayed lowering the lifeboats until the ship was listing too heavily for many to be released.

Several other passengers said crew members told passengers for 45 minutes that there was a simple "technical problem" that had caused the lights to go off.

Passengers said they had never participated in an evacuation drill, although one had been scheduled for Saturday. The cruise began on Jan. 7.

Costa Crociera SpA, which is owned by the U.S.-based cruise giant Carnival Corp., defended the actions of its crew and said it was cooperating with the investigation. Carnival Corp. issued a statement expressing sympathy that didn't address the allegations of delayed evacuation.

It was confirmed that two of the deaths were Frenchmen; a Peruvian diplomat identified the third victim as Tomas Alberto Costilla Mendoza, 49, a crewman from Peru. Some 30 people were injured, at least two seriously.

In the wake of the disaster, there are questions about the safety of cruise ships. The first mistake by the captain and crew was repeatedly telling passengers not to worry and that the ship had a minor electrical problem.

A former cruise industry safety executive told ABC News captains are trained to tell passengers the truth so they can prepare. As for reports that navigational gear was knocked out because of a power outage, that shouldn't have been a problem.

"Cruise ships have a redundancy of backup systems. They just don't have one radar, they'll have two or three radars. If they were to lose one of their generators, they have a backup emergency generator," said Chief Warrant Officer Aaron Vanhuysen.

Cruise ships are designed with a series of water-tight compartments, so if just one or two is flooded, the ship can still float. But with the massive damage, the captain may have been trying to ground the ship - considered safer than risking sinking and evacuating in deeper water.

But the delay in abandoning ship proved deadly. At the time the abandon ship order went out, the cruise liner was listing badly, and many of the life boats could not be lowered.

Meanwhile, those boarding cruises in Long Beach on Sunday said that despite the tragic fate of the Costa Concordia, they felt that the accident was a rare occurrence, and they still felt safe boarding cruises in the U.S.

"No extra safety precautions necessary here," said Scott Soker of Missouri. "I think the United States is a little bit more strict than overseas, and I think we'll be fine."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.