- 18 января 2012, 22:33
Francesco Schettino describes mayhem onboard after vessel ran aground off Italian coast but prosecutor disputes account
The cruise-liner captain accused of abandoning ship after it struck rocks off the Tuscan coast last Friday has reportedly claimed he could not lead the evacuation because he slipped and fell into a lifeboat while helping passengers leave the stricken vessel.
Captain Francesco Schettino said it was an accident that he left the Costa Concordia, according to Italian press reports. "The passengers were pouring on to the decks, taking the lifeboats by assault," he was quoted as telling a judge during a hearing to determine whether he should be held in custody on charges of manslaughter and abandoning ship.
"I was trying to get people to get into the boats in an orderly fashion. Suddenly, since the ship was at a 60-70 degree angle, I tripped and I ended up in one of the boats. That's how I found myself in the lifeboat," Schettino said.
The death toll among the 4,200 passengers and crew stands at 11, with 21 people still unaccounted for. Eight bodies have been retrieved from the grounded vessel, while three drowned while trying to reach the shore. One of the bodies found on the vessel was identified on Wednesday as Sandor Feher, 38, a Hungarian violinist who worked on board and was last seen helping crying children into life jackets before returning to his cabin to get his violin.
Italian officials said a German woman who was mistakenly listed among the missing had been located alive in Germany.
Schettino, who took command of the newly launched, 114,500-tonne Costa Concordia in 2006, admitted responsibility for crashing into rocks near the island of Giglio, which tore a hole in the liner.
"I don't know why it happened. I was a victim of my instincts," he said. He confirmed he sailed close to the island to salute a retired captain, Mario Palombo.
Schettino said he was not afraid of a drugs test. "I don't do drugs and I had not drunk," he said.
By grounding the vessel close to the shore after it struck the rocks, he claims he saved the lives of many passengers.
A report released on Wednesday by the judge, Valeria Montesarchio, revealed the ship was sailing at more than 15 knots when it struck the rocks.
Schettino left the vessel while 300 people were still on board. After his "gravely imprudent" behaviour, he remained "completely inert" on the rocks as others scrambled to help the evacuation, the report stated.
The judge also revealed that Schettino had told police he would never go to sea again.
The judge interviewed Roberto Bosio, a cruise ship captain who was on board by chance, and who has been hailed a hero in Italy after he reportedly stayed on the ship to take charge of the evacuation.
The judge's decision to free Schettino from custody and place him under house arrest is to be subject to an appeal by prosecutor Francesco Verusio, who said Schettino "doesn't appear unhappy about what he caused," and could flee.
Verusio questioned Schettino's story about falling into the lifeboat. "Even if he fell in the lifeboat, he could have got back on the [Costa Concordia]," he said.
Support for Schettino came from his parish priest, Father Gennaro Starita, who said the captain was being "killed" by a "media circus".
On Giglio, divers searching for passengers on the half-submerged ship were urgently pulled off the vessel on Wednesday after sensors revealed it had shifted about 1.5 metres. A smaller shift on Monday prompted fears the vessel may move from the rocks on which is now lodged and tumble into the 70-metre depths below.
Navy divers had been planning to blow three holes in the hull with explosive charges after five holes were created on Tuesday to allow access to a lower deck, where divers found five bodies.
As hope fades of finding passengers alive, Italy's environment minister, Corrado Clini, said it would take two weeks to empty the ship's 15 fuel tanks of 2,280 tonnes of fuel to avoid the possibility of a leak.
The tiny port on Giglio has this week become a busy hub for 600 rescue workers and journalists, prompting about 700 winter residents to reopen shops and hotels closed until the summer. Relatives of missing passengers visited the porton Wednesday to meet officials and appeal for information.
Posters appeared on the walls around the port asking for news of Giuseppe Girolamo, 30, an Italian musician who was hired to play in a rock band on the Costa Concordia in December. He was reportedly seen boarding a lifeboat on Friday before jumping back on board the cruise ship to help other passengers disembark.