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Italy captain denies abandoning ship as toll rises to 11

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 17, 2012 14:41 EDT
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Rescues divers retrieve a body from the stricken cruise liner Costa Concordia. Image via AFP.
 
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The captain of the doomed Italian cruise liner denied Tuesday he had abandoned ship, as rescue divers found another five bodies in the wreckage, bringing the death toll to 11.

A dramatic coastguard recording of ship-to-shore communications as the disaster unfolded showed that captain Francesco Schettinoignored an order to return to the vessel after it hit rocks and pitched on to its side on Friday.

But Schettino, who was questioned at length Tuesday by Italian prosecutors, denied he had left the Costa Concordia and said his actions as the boat was going down near the picturesque Tuscan island of Giglio had saved many lives.

“The captain defended his role on the direction of the ship after the collision, which in the captain’s opinion saved hundreds if not thousands of lives,” his lawyer Bruno Leporatti said. “The captain specified that he did not abandon ship.”

But according to investigators, the flooded engine rooms would have made it impossible for Schettino to navigate the 114,500 tonne ship, which drifted closer to the tiny port on Giglio before capsizing.

Schettino, 52, is accused by prosecutors of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship before all the passengers were rescued. He has yet to be formally charged.

“Get back on board now, for f***** sake… You must tell us how many people, children, women and passengers are there,” an increasingly strident port official tells Schettino, according to the Livorno port authority recording.

“What are you doing? Are you abandoning the rescue?” the official asks.

A judge is due to rule at 1900 GMT on a prosection request to deny bail to Schettino, who was arrested along with his first officer, Ciro Ambrosio, on Saturday.

The grilling of Schettino came as the bodies of another five people were discovered after the Italian navy used explosives to blow seven holes in the upturned hull of the Costa Concordia, bringing the death toll to 11.

About two dozen people are still missing.

“The five victims are a woman and four men, who could be passengers but we are not sure, they are between 50 and 60 years old,” said coastguard spokesman Filippo Marini. He said the victims had been wearing life jackets when found.

Earlier, officials had said that 12 Germans, six Italians, four French, two Americans, one Hungarian, one Indian and one Peruvian were still unaccounted for. There were also reports of a missing five-year-old Italian girl.

The dead identified so far include two French passengers, an Italian and a Spaniard and one Peruvian crew member.

About 4,200 people were on board when the ship went down shortly after it had left a port near Rome at the start of a seven-day Mediterranean cruise, and survivors have spoken of scenes of chaos, confusion and panic on board.

The Italian press reported Tuesday that as the vessel began to keel over, the crew initiated the evacuation procedure themselves — 15 minutes before Schettino eventually gave the command.

But in his meeting with prosecutors, “the captain explained his behaviour, his decision, his choices during that phase of emergency”, the lawyer Leporatti told reporters outside the court in the provincial capital Grossetto.

“There is no need for him to be in detention,” he added.

Asked what caused the disaster, Leporatti replied: “He found a rock along his route.”

Schettino has been widely criticised after reports emerged that he ordered an unauthorised sail-by close to the island, which was not on the cruise’s itinerary, to please a local crew member.

“It was bravado, Schettino was showing off, clowning around, it was incredibly stupid. I would sentence him not once but 10 times,” said a former captain who worked with the ship’s owner, Costa Crociere.

Costa Crociere, Europe’s largest cruise operator, said Monday that the accident occurred as a result of an “inexplicable” error by the captain and distanced themselves from the actions of their employee.

A group of more than 70 Italian passengers have joined a class action suit against the owner, consumer rights association Codacons said Tuesday.

Mario Palombo, a former captain of the doomed Costa Concordia with whom Schettino served as first mate for four years, told investigators that he was “too high-spirited and a dare devil”.

As fears rose of an environmental disaster if the ship’s fuel tanks rupture and leak, Marini said crews had laid down absorbent booms after noticing “an iridescence” in the water off Giglio, a marine sanctuary and popular holiday spot.

Forecasts say a storm is expected to lash the rocky island on Thursday, prompting concerns that the semi-submerged ship could sink entirely.

Local officials are calling for strict curbs in the future on shipping routes in an area of outstanding natural beauty and the government is expected to declare a state of emergency there later this week.

Dutch salvage company Smit began assessing the site on Tuesday and plans to begin pumping out the fuel from the Concordia’s tanks this week, although it said the operation would take at least three weeks.

Officials said the giant ship itself could then be taken off Giglio in an unprecedented operation using massive floats.

Agence France-Presse
Agence France-Presse
AFP journalists cover wars, conflicts, politics, science, health, the environment, technology, fashion, entertainment, the offbeat, sports and a whole lot more in text, photographs, video, graphics and online.
 
 
 
 
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