Cruise captain on house arrest as death toll rises

Costa Cruises chairman and CEO Pierluigi Foschi

The captain of a Carnival Corp ship that ran aground off Italy was granted house arrest hours after audio emerged of a Coast Guard official ordering Francesco Schettino to return to his damaged ship and oversee rescue efforts.

Schettino, who may face criminal charges including manslaughter, was granted house arrest last night by a judge in Grosseto, Italy, his lawyer, Bruno Leporatti told reporters in remarks broadcast on Sky TG24.

The ruling came late yesterday hours after divers discovered five more bodies on the stricken ship, bringing the death toll to 11. Twenty-eight people are missing, according to Italy's Civil Protection agency.

Judge Valeria Montesarchio took three hours of testimony from Schettino as TV news programs and websites continually broadcast audio of phone conversations on Jan. 13 between Schettino and a senior Coast Guard official after the Costa Concordia struck rocks off the island of Giglio and tilted on its side with 4,200 people on board.

Coast Guard Commander Gregorio Maria De Falco repeatedly ordered Schettino to get back on the cruise liner, at times swearing at the captain after Schettino said he wasn’t on board. 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 scramble across the exposed hull to reach rescue boats from Giglio.

 “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 there.”

When the captain hesitated to reply, 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 said. Prosecutor Francesco Verusio 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.

The captain is “shattered, dismayed, saddened for the loss of lives and strongly disturbed,” his lawyer Leporatti said in a statement Jan. 16.

Rescue divers discovered five more bodies yesterday after setting off small explosives to allow them to reach more remote parts of the ship. Authorities yesterday for the first time released a list of those still unaccounted for.

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,” he said in an emailed statement last night.

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.

The Costa Concordia ran aground about 9:45 p.m. on Jan. 14 within hours after 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 the Giglio, Foschi said at a press conference in Genoa 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.

Schettino may have steered the boat closer to Giglio to give passengers a better view of the Tuscan island, Foschi said.

Foschi visited the island yesterday and met with survivors, crew members and rescue workers. He said he was touched by the stories of people on the ship, and that 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.”

After the collision, passengers were initially told that the ship had an electrical problem and there was nothing to be concerned about. The order to abandon ship wasn’t given for more than two hours after the collision when the ship 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 clamouring along the side of the ship to reach ladders that led down to water, where they were loaded on to rescue boats.

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