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Costa Concordia captain 'distracted by guests on bridge'

Witness claims captain's concentration was disturbed by conversation with visitor on bridge at moment of impact

The captain of the capsized cruise ship Costa Concordia was distracted by guests on the bridge when he collided with the Italian island of Giglio, according to a witness who has also claimed Francesco Schettino then played no role in guiding the holed ship into shallow water, instead panicking before returning to his cabin.

"There was someone who asked which island it was and the maitre d'hotel was chatting, basically disturbing the steering, with a consequent impact on concentration," said one officer on the bridge, Silvia Coronika, describing the moment of impact.

The first-hand accounts of what happened at the helm on 13 January were given by Coronika and other officers to magistrates, and published in Italian newspapers on Monday.

Prosecutors, who have placed Schettino under house arrest, accuse the captain of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the Costa Concordia before all the 4,200 passengers and crew evacuated. At least 13 people died while around 20 are still unaccounted for.

Coronika said Schettino arrived on the bridge when the ship was about four nautical miles from Giglio off the Tuscan coast and switched to manual navigation in order to perform a close-up "salute" to a retired captain, Mario Palombo, living on the island.

She named Antonello Tievoli, a maitre d'hotel, another native of the island, as being on the bridge, as well as purser Manrico Giampetroni, who was later found trapped on the grounded vessel with a broken leg.

"The salute wasn't always done, but fairly often," said a second officer, Alberto Fiorito. "I am sure it had been done the last three times the ship sailed from Civitavecchia to Savona." The CEO of cruise company Costa Crociere has insisted that such salutes were rare.

Shortly after he had smashed into rocks, holing the vessel, Schettino told an officer to inform the coastguard the ship had merely suffered a blackout and did not need assistance.

"He was walking from one end of the bridge to the other in panic," said Coronika.

Crew members were meanwhile reporting water flooding the engine rooms through a 50-metre gash in the hull torn by the massive chunk of granite that remained embedded in the side of the ship.

"I told the captain Schettino of the situation," said Giuseppe Pilon. "I told him we had lost control of the ship." Only about an hour after the impact did Schettino give the order to abandon ship.

It has been suggested that Schettino saved lives by steering the drifting vessel in shallow water, using the anchors to turn it. But Coronika said she heard no orders from Schettino to try the manoeuvre.

Schettino told investigators he returned to his cabin to collect belongings before disembarking.

Italian daily La Repubblica reported on Monday that Schettino left the ship with a laptop computer, which he handed over to a lawyer working for Costa Crociere, before he was taken into custody for questioning on 14 January. Costa Crociere denied an employee had been handed anything by Schettino.

As divers continued to search the Costa Concordia for passengers, employees of Costa Crociere held a demonstration on Sunday in Genoa – the firm's home town – in protest against claims crew members on the Costa Concordia failed to help passengers evacuate.

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