Cruise captain denies abandoning ship
Giglio Island - The "most hated man in Italy", the captain of the doomed Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia, was put under house arrest for manslaughter as the death toll hit 11 with some 20 people still missing.
Francesco Schettino was placed under house arrest on Tuesday over the running aground of the enormous vessel off Giglio island in Tuscany, after which he allegedly abandoned ship before all the passengers and crew were saved.
A dramatic port authority recording of a telephone exchange as the disaster unfolded late on Friday showed that captain Francesco Schettino ignored an order to return to the vessel after it hit rocks and pitched onto its side.
Schettini denied on Tuesday he had abandoned ship, as rescue divers found another five bodies in the wreckage, bringing the death toll to 11.
Under lengthy questioning by Italian prosecutors, Schettino said his actions as the boat was going down near 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."
The Corriere della Sera said Schettino told prosecutors that he was at the helm when disaster struck, but later fell into the sea and could not get back on board the tilting vessel.
Leporatti backed the claim, telling journalists: "The ship in that moment was tilted over by 90°".
He also said the captain "carried out a brilliant manoeuvre" after the collision, and had "kept his wits about him", managing to steer the vessel toward the shore and "save a number of lives".
But according to investigators, the flooded engine rooms would have made it impossible for Schettino to navigate the 114 500-ton ship, which drifted closer to a tiny port on Giglio before capsizing.
In the Livorno port authority recording, an increasingly strident port official tells Schettino: "Get back on board now, for fuck's sake... You must tell us how many people, children, women and passengers are there."
The official asks: "What are you doing? Are you abandoning the rescue?"
Schettino, 52, described by the daily Corriere della Serra as "the most hated man in Italy", is accused of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship before all the passengers were rescued.
Italian media said Schettino, jailed in the central Italian town of Grosseto by order of prosecutor Francesco Verusio who said he feared a "risk of flight", would be released from prison on Wednesday morning.
Police leaving the prison told journalists outside that the captain had already been freed, but this could not be officially confirmed.
Schettino, who was arrested along with his first officer, Ciro Ambrosio, on Saturday, has yet to be formally charged, while a judge ruled on Tuesday that he should be placed under house arrest, Leporatti said.
Chief prosecutor Verusio said he did not understand how Schettino could be released from jail as he was a flight risk and risked 15 years in prison.
The grilling of Schettino came as another five bodies 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 spokesperson Filippo Marini. He said the victims were wearing life jackets.
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 5-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 confusion and panic on board.
The Italian press reported 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", lawyer Leporatti told reporters outside the court in the provincial capital Grosseto.
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 crew member who hails from Giglio.
"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 on Monday that the accident occurred as a result of an "inexplicable" error by the captain and distanced itself from the actions of their employee.
More than 70 Italian passengers have joined a class action suit against the owner, consumer rights association Codacons said on Tuesday.
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.
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.