Nations Hunt For Info On Italy Cruise Accident

Published January 14, 2012 8:36PM (EST)

PORTO SANTO STEFANO, Italy (AP) — Language barriers, overwhelmed local authorities, squads of foreign diplomats with lists of awkward questions — the international mix of passengers and crew aboard the stricken Costa Concordia cruise liner added to the complications Saturday for Italian officials handling the emergency.

Local authorities were fielding inquiries from dozens of nations worried about the 4,234 people who were aboard the ship when it ran aground and tipped over off the coast of Italy, including Italians, Germans, French people, Britons and Americans, and about 1,000 crew members from across the globe.

As international travel has grown easier, aid agencies and lawmakers alike have frequently warned of the potential for confusion in the wake of international emergencies, as sometimes competing nations or international organizations arrive at a disaster site.

In Italy, a host of countries sent diplomatic staff to the scene as three bodies were recovered from the sea off the tiny island of Giglio, close to the coast of Tuscany.

British ambassador Christopher Prentice said he had seen his counterparts from Germany and Spain at local hospitals, where diplomats were checking identities and tallying numbers of those injured.

Officials from the U.K. and Australia set up a joint base at Porto Santo Stefano middle school, which had been transformed into a temporary holding center for rescued passengers.

Though the school was a scene of chaos, as passengers tried to find buses to take them back to Rome or the coastal town of Savona — where most had embarked — and embassy officials cross-referenced ship logs and passenger lists, Prentice said nations were cooperating well.

"This is obviously a very serious and major incident, my impression at this stage is that the Italian authorities have responded excellently and our cooperation with them has been very good," Prentice said, as he offered advice to Britons at the school.

Other embassies sent lower-level officials to work with the ship operator Costa and local authorities, offering help to foreign passengers who didn't speak Italian and were struggling to understand the response to the accident or how to get home.

Consular officials wore bright green or orange emergency vests to identify themselves to their co-nationals, offering help in how to obtain emergency passports, since many non-Europeans had to turn them in to cruise officials upon boarding.

Prentice said that in a still unfolding crisis scenario, good coordination was key. "It is about cooperation, and things are being done here very calmly and sensibly, I've been impressed by the effort of the Italian authorities," he said.

As nations were still attempting to confirm the identities of passengers who had been rescued from the ship, rescuers focused on several dozen people still unaccounted for.

Monty Mathisen, of the New York-based publication Cruise Industry News, said Costa would be well prepared to handle the demands of countries searching for news of the passengers and crew.

"They are well set up to deal with those kind of issues," said Mathisen. "The cruise industry is one of most regulated industries."

Marcus Oxley, then disaster management director of the relief charity Tearfund told a committee of British lawmakers in 2006 of the nightmare confronting local authorities as organizations descend on an area requesting information, or offering help.

"In the white hot heat of an emergency these things are extraordinarily difficult to do," he said.


Stringer reported from London.

By Salon Staff

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