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Captain of doomed cruise ship says he fell into lifeboat

By Bloomberg News

LAST UPDATED: 11:39 a.m. HST, Jan 18, 2012

The captain of a Carnival Corp. ship that ran aground off Italy told a judge yesterday that he made a mistake by steering too close to Giglio island, according to a court document obtained by Bloomberg News.

Francesco Schettino, the captain of the Costa Concordia, failed to promptly advise the Italian Coast guard after he struck rocks along the coast and later allegedly abandoned the ship carrying 4,200 passengers and crew with at least 100 people still aboard, according to yesterday’s ruling by Judge Valeria Montesarchio putting him under house arrest. She rejected the prosecutor’s request to keep him in jail.

“The captain has always been there in front of his ship, albeit on the shore, to coordinate operations,” Bruno Leporatti, Schettino’s lawyer, said at a press conference today broadcast by SkyTG24. Schettino said he made an emergency maneuver after hitting the rocks to prevent the ship from heading out to sea and sinking, according to the document.

Judge Montesarchio said the 51-year-old captain admitted that he deviated from the ship’s programmed route, coming 0.28 nautical miles from the coast. He then allegedly refused pleas from a Coast Guard official to return to the ship, the document shows. He “underestimated the damage” and gave the evacuation order more than an hour after the ship hit rocks by the island, delaying rescue operations, according to the document.

Schettino didn’t make a serious attempt to get back on the ship and stood more than an hour on the shore in front of the stranded vessel without acting, according to the document. The captain claims he didn’t leave the vessel intentionally and that he was prevented from going back to the ship, the document shows. He said during his interrogation that the ship’s listing made him trip over and fall into a lifeboat, la Repubblica said. Judge Montesarchio rejected the prosecutor’s request for custody, saying there’s no risk of the captain fleeing.

Divers yesterday discovered five more bodies on the stricken ship, bringing the death toll to 11. More than 20 people are missing.

Schettino may face criminal charges including manslaughter and abandoning the Costa Concordia when passengers were still onboard, according to prosecutor Francesco Verusio.

Montesarchio took three hours of testimony from Schettino yesterday as TV news programs and websites broadcast audio of phone conversations on Jan. 13 between Schettino and a senior Coast Guard official after the Costa Concordia hit the rocks.

Coast Guard Commander Gregorio Maria De Falco repeatedly ordered Schettino to get back on the cruise liner, at times swearing at the captain. Schettino initially told the official that only 40 people remained on the ship at a time when hundreds were still trying to evacuate. The ship began listing, complicating efforts to lower lifeboats and forcing passengers to move across the exposed hull to reach rescue boats.

“There are people climbing down a rope ladder on the bow of the ship, take a lifeboat and climb up that ladder and climb up on to the ship and tell me how many people are there,” De Falco, speaking from the city of Livorno on the Italian mainland, told Schettino, according to audio posted yesterday on the website of newspaper Corriere della Sera. “Tell me if there are women, children and people in need.”

When the captain hesitated, De Falco said there were fatalities and again ordered him to return. “You realize it’s dark and we can’t see anything?” Schettino said, adding that “other rescue workers” were now in place.

“You’ve been telling me that for an hour, now get back on board!” the Coast Guard official shouted. A Coast Guard spokesman confirmed that the audio is authentic.

Schettino didn’t return and took a taxi on Giglio before being arrested, media including Sky TG24 reported. The prosecutor had requested that Schettino be held in jail because of the risk he might flee, rather than be permitted to return to his home in Sorrento, Italy.

Bruno Leporatti, Schettino’s lawyer, wasn’t immediately available for comment today. Schettino is “shattered, dismayed, saddened for the loss of lives and strongly disturbed,” Leporatti said in a statement Jan. 16.

Authorities yesterday for the first time released a list of those still unaccounted for.

Carnival shares rose 2.7 percent to $30.40 in New York after falling 14 percent yesterday, the biggest decline since the first day of trading after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Carnival Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Micky Arison, said he was “deeply saddened” by the news of the additional deaths.

“Our immediate priority continues to be supporting rescue and recovery efforts and looking after our guests and crew members, along with securing the vessel to ensure there is no environmental impact,” Arison said in an e-mailed statement late yesterday.

“My senior management team and I have been in continuous contact with the Costa executive team in Italy and we have our senior-level technical experts on the ground to provide additional support for this tragic and highly unusual incident.”

Schettino, who joined the company in 2002, was promoted to captain in 2006 and never had a prior accident, according to Pier Luigi Foschi, chairman of Carnival’s Italian unit, Costa Crociere SpA.

The Costa Concordia ran aground about 9:45 p.m. on Jan. 13 within hours of leaving a port near Rome to continue a Mediterranean cruise. The ship’s route was set electronically before it left, and the cruise liner shouldn’t have been so close to Giglio, Foschi said at a press conference in Genoa on Jan. 16.

“The fact that the ship strayed from that course can only be due to a maneuver that was not approved, not authorized nor communicated to Costa Crociere by the captain of the ship,” Foschi said.

Foschi visited the island yesterday and said the accident didn’t reflect any safety issues with Costa ships.

“Our ships are safe just as they were on Friday,” he said from Giglio, where the Concordia juts out of the water just off the edge of the island. “It has nothing to do with security at sea nor does it have anything to do with our policy, training or the quality of our personnel.”

Passengers were initially told after the collision that the ship had an electrical problem and there was nothing to be concerned about. When the order to abandon ship was given, it was beginning to list, making it impossible to lower many of the lifeboats, passengers on the cruise liner said. Video released Jan. 16 of the rescue operation showed hundreds of passengers moving along the side of the ship to reach ladders that led down to water, where they were loaded onto rescue boats.

Giglio, an island of 1,500 inhabitants in winter who survive on fishing and tourism, is located about 14 miles from the Tuscan coast. Giglio lies within the “Santuario dei Cetacei,” an area of roughly 33,784 square kilometers that in 1999 was declared by the governments of France, Italy and Monaco a sanctuary for marine mammals such as dolphins and whales.

Weather conditions could move the ship to deeper water, Environment Minister Corrado Clini said today in Parliament. Italy is considering whether to declare a state of emergency for the area, he said.

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