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Costa Concordia cruise ship death toll rises to 6

The cruise ship Costa Concordia lies stricken off

The cruise ship Costa Concordia lies stricken off the shore of the island of Giglio, in Giglio Porto, Italy. More than 4,000 people were on board when the ship hit rocks on Jan. 13, 2012. (Jan. 16, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

The jailed captain of the cruise ship that sank after hitting a rock off Italy's Tuscan coast made an unauthorized deviation from the standard course, the ship's owner said Monday as the confirmed death toll rose to six.

Italian Coast Guard officials upped the number of people still missing from the Costa Concordia from 16 to 29 three days after the ship ran aground on a reef. Two missing Americans were identified by their family as Jerry Heil, 69, and his wife, Barbara, 70, from White Bear Lake, Minn.

The search for survivors or additional victims was suspended for several hours Monday after the Costa Concordia shifted in rough seas, raising fears that 500,000 gallons of fuel onboard could leak into the waters off the island of Giglio, which are protected as a dolphin sanctuary.

U.S. maritime safety experts said the cause of the accident should be simple to pinpoint because the ship was equipped with a voyage data recorder similar to the "black boxes" carried in commercial aircraft, but with more information tracked.

"We will find out what happened," said Brad Schoenwald, senior marine inspector with the U.S. Coast Guard's Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise in Fort Lauderdale. He said the recorder should provide information about the ship's course and speed as well any conversation by Capt. Francesco Schettino or his crew on the ship's bridge.

Pier Luigi Foschi, chief executive of Costa Crociere SpA, which is owned by Carnival Corp., said "Capt. Schettino took an initiative of his own will, which is contrary to our written rules of conduct."

His company's ships follow programmed routes, and alarms sound if there is any deviation, Foschi said. But the alarms are disabled if the ship's course is manually altered. "This route was put in correctly upon departure," he said.

Foschi said the company has only once approved a navigational "fly-by" closer to the shoreline of Giglio.

"You simply don't take a ship like that close to the beach," said Robert Meurn, professor emeritus at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point and an expert on shipping disasters. "You always err on the side of caution."

With Schettino jailed early Saturday and under investigation for manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing a shipwreck, Michael Chalos of Centre Island, who practices maritime law in Port Washington, said, "What you're seeing is an expansion of criminalization of maritime accidents to foreign countries, especially if there is pollution or death."

He said the trend of filing criminal charges against captains or shipping companies rather than dealing with incidents through civil lawsuits began with the 1989 grounding of the tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska. Chalos defended the captain, Joseph Hazelwood of Huntington, who was sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service after being convicted in 1990 of a misdemeanor charge of negligent discharge of oil, but acquitted of more serious charges.

"It's troubling," Chalos said. "Accidents generally are accidents" and should be treated that way "unless you can show this guy was reckless or in violation of some standard he should have been following."

Meurn said it is possible the ship struck an uncharted reef. "Some charts do not reveal everything," he said of the nautical maps used at sea. In 1992, the Queen Elizabeth 2 struck a rock not shown on charts off Block Island, R.I. "So you have to take precautions," he said.

Meurn, who lives in Michigan having retired from full-time teaching, said the captain and crew also could be faulted for not immediately evacuating the passengers into the lifeboats after hitting the rock. "He knew they had collided with something," Meurn said of Schettino. "He should have at least got all the passengers up to their abandon-ship stations immediately."

Chalos said if the captain deviated from the standard course to bring the ship closer to spectators on shore, as the liner's owners charged, it would be an aberration in the industry.

"Most of these captains put safety first," he said. "It's their license that's at stake. They're not going to jeopardize that for a photo opportunity."

Schoenwald said navigating near shorelines should be second nature for captains of ocean liners. "In order to get it to port, you have to go near shore," he said. "It requires a higher level of vigilance and following the existing navigational procedures."

With Patrick Whittle and combined wire services

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