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Diving in the ghostly labyrinth of Italy's cruise wreck

The chaos in the bowels of the shipwrecked Costa Concordia is the worst diver Fabio Paoletti has ever seen and the terror of navigating through an underwater labyrinth is hard to shake off.

world Updated: Jan 24, 2012 08:55 IST
Costa Concordia
A-photograph-taken-of-the-Costa-Concordia-after-the-cruise-ship-with-more-than-4-000-people-on-board-ran-aground-and-keeled-over-off-the-Isola-del-Giglio-and-Italian-island-AFP-Photo

The chaos in the bowels of the shipwrecked Costa Concordia is the worst diver Fabio Paoletti has ever seen and the terror of navigating through an underwater labyrinth is hard to shake off.

"It is always scary, every time I go down to search the wreck, the unknown is frightening," Paoletti told AFP in an interview on the shores of the Tuscan island of Giglio after his latest dive in search of bodies in the cruise liner.

Paoletti, 43, who specialises in cave diving, has pulled more than a few decomposing bodies from shipwrecked trawlers over the years, but has never had to tackle anything close to the the size of the vast 17-deck Concordia.

"Making our way through the debris is difficult and tiring. Visibility ranges from 80 centimetres (30 inches) to 10 centimetres, and we have to check everything -- floating tablecloths, discarded clothes -- for bodies," he said.

The divers search the ship in pairs for security reasons and inch their way through the murky waters at a painstaking pace, often having to squeeze into confined areas where the risk of becoming trapped is great.

They navigate in a zig-zag movement to make sure they cover every area.

"We go down for 50 minutes at a time, with three oxygen tanks strapped to us, and leave one or two along the way in case we start to run out of air. If we're not back in that time, our back up races to find us," Paoletti said.

The ruddy-faced diver from Viterbo near Rome said he has always had a passion for caving and he goes regularly in his spare time. He also attends rigorous training courses with the fire service six times a year.

"One of the biggest risks is that you get tangled up in electrical cables snaking in the water. Scissors are one of the most important bits of equipment. During training, they cover your eyes with a mask, and wrap ropes around you.

"You then have a really short amount of time to cut yourself free... without cutting through your own safety cord -- because that's your life-line, you have to follow that cord back to find your way out of the labyrinth," he said.

The Concordia, which boasted four swimming pools, a spa, five restaurants, 13 bars, and an array of entertainment and shopping facilities, lurched on to its side when it hit rocks off the Tuscan coast on Friday, January 13.

So far, 15 people have been confirmed dead.

While the search for survivors among the 17 missing people officially continues, Paoletti said he was not hopeful someone could still be alive.

"If there was by a slim chance anyone down there knocking or calling out for help, we would hear it, but it's unlikely. Sometimes we think we've found a body, but it can just be a bundle, a jacket and a pair of glasses," he said.

The divers use two head lamps to scour the freezing water and navigate an obstacle course of tables and chairs as well as items abandoned by terrified passengers as they rushed to evacuate, from wheel chairs to baby buggies.

The Costa Concordia had 4,229 people on board from more than 60 countries when it hit rocks and keeled over, prompting a chaotic evacuation. The bodies, wearing life-jackets, have largely been found at emergency meeting points.

Paoletti's nine-man team wait for Italian navy to blow holes in the side of the ship with micro-explosives before heading in. They photocopy the relevant part of the vessel's plans, laminate the map and take it with them, he said.

The thought of getting cut off from his safety line and getting lost in the ship's entrails does not panic him -- mainly, he says, because he can't afford to worry about it, as losing self-control during the dive can be fatal.

"Panicking makes you do things you shouldn't, it's difficult to get back out if you lose it," he said.

Though there is a psychologist on hand to speak divers, Paoletti, whose wife also works for the fire brigade, said he has not needed him yet.

"There's no time to think of anything but the job when you're down there, and when you get back you're exhausted, too tired even for nightmares!"

The atmosphere inside the boat is ghostly and despite the pressures of the search, there are surreal moments: "I saw a bottle of red wine that had survived the crash intact, and I thought, I might take that back up with me!"