Divers have found fragments of human bone underneath the stricken Costa Concordia which may belong to two passengers whose bodies were never found when the cruise ship capsized last year.
A total of 32 passengers and crew members from the 4,200 people on board the ship drowned during a panic evacuation when it grounded after slamming into rocks off the Italian island of Giglio in January 2012.
Of the victims, the bodies of Indian waiter Russel Rebello and Sicilian passenger Maria Grazia Trecarichi were never found and rescuers believed they were pinioned to the rocks under the massive, 114,000-tonne ship when it toppled on to its side.
After the ship was righted last week on to underwater platforms during a €600 million salvage operation, 60 divers from the Italian police, coastguard and navy scoured the seabed where the ship lay, as relatives of Mr Rebello and Ms Trecarichi waited anxiously on shore.
Yesterday, civil protection chief Franco Gabrielli said the discovery of the bone fragments on the seabed, at a depth of 14 metres, “was almost a miracle,” but said he now wanted DNA proof.
“More than anything it will be the DNA testing that confirms if these are the people we are searching for,” he said.
But he added: “The position and first impressions make us think these are their remains.”
Divers will now extend their search in the area where the bones were found, close to the centre of the ship, exactly where investigators believe the two fell into the sea as the vessel tipped over.
Even though the Costa Concordia was yards from the shore, passengers were sucked underwater by whirlpools created as the 950ft ship rapidly submerged.
Ms Trecarichi, who had taken the cruise with her daughter to celebrate her 50th birthday, was last seen calming down terrified fellow passengers. Her husband, Elio Vincenzi, has said she rang a friend on her mobile phone as the ship tilted, crying out: “God, God, we are sliding into the water.”
Mr Vincenzi returned to the island after the ship was lifted, saying he wanted to take his wife’s remains home to Sicily to bury her.
Waiter Mr Rebello was last seen helping passengers escape. His brother Kevin has spent months on the island of Giglio, waiting for rescuers to find his brother’s remains.
After 20 months on its side, the Costa Concordia now sits upright with just a third of the vessel above water, as salvage teams prepare to float the wreck and tow it off to a scrapyard next spring using air tanks welded to its sides.
Although the ship was declared stable on Monday, allowing divers to search the seabed, no salvage operators have yet been allowed on board.
“When the go-ahead is given to board, the salvage teams have the job of getting the 1,500 cabin safes out, which will be labelled and sent to a warehouse in Talamone, on the Italian mainland, so that valuables can be returned,” said a spokeswoman for Costa Crociere, the operator of the cruise ship.
“They will also try to retrieve sculptures from the ship.”