ROME — An Italian coast guard official vehemently demanded that the captain go back to his crippled cruise ship to oversee its evacuation, but the captain repeatedly resisted, according to a shocking audiotape made public Tuesday.
Prosecutors have accused Capt. Francesco Schettino of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his ship before all passengers were evacuated during the grounding of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the Tuscan coast on Friday night.
The death toll nearly doubled to 11 on Tuesday when divers extracted five more bodies from the ship’s wreckage. All were adults wearing life jackets and were found in rear of the ship near an emergency evacuation point, according to Italian Coast Guard Cmdr. Cosimo Nicastro. He said they were thought to have been passengers.
Prior to that discovery, the coast guard had raised the number of missing to 25 passengers and four crew. Italian officials gave the breakdown as 14 Germans, six Italians, four French, two Americans, one Hungarian, one Indian and one Peruvian. But there was still confusion over the numbers, with the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin listing 12 Germans as confirmed missing.
The Costa Concordia was carrying more than 4,200 people when it hit a reef off the Tuscan island of Giglio after Schettino made an unauthorized deviation from the cruise ship’s programmed course, apparently as a favour to his chief waiter, who hailed from the island.
Schettino has insisted that he stayed aboard until the ship was evacuated. However, a recording of his conversation with Italian Coast Guard Capt. Gregorio De Falco indicates he fled before all passengers were off — and then resisted De Falco’s repeated orders to return.
“You go on board and then you will tell me how many people there are. Is that clear?” De Falco shouted in the audio tape.
Schettino resisted, saying the ship was tipping and it was dark. At the time, he and his second-in-command were in a lifeboat and the captain said he was co-ordinating the rescue from there. He also said he was not going back on board the ship “because the other lifeboat is stopped.” Passengers have said many lifeboats on the exposed port side of the ship didn’t winch down after the ship had capsized.
De Falco shouted back: “And so what? You want to go home, Schettino? It is dark and you want to go home? Get on that prow of the boat using the pilot ladder and tell me what can be done, how many people there are and what their needs are. Now!”
“You go aboard. It is an order. Don’t make any more excuses. You have declared ’Abandon ship,’ now I am in charge,” De Falco shouted.
At one point, De Falco vowed “I’m going to make sure you get in trouble. …I am going to make you pay for this. Go on board, (expletive)!”
Schettino was finally heard agreeing to reboard on the tape. But the coast guard has said he never went back, and had police arrest him on land.
The 52-year-old Schettino, described by the Italian media as a genial, tanned ship’s officer, has worked for 11 years for the ship’s owner and was made captain in 2006. He hails from Meta di Sorrento, in the Naples area, which produces many of Italy’s ferry and cruise boat captains. He attended the Nino Bixio merchant marine school near Sorrento.
Schettino recounted his version of events before prosecutors and a judge at a preliminary hearing Tuesday as to whether he should stay jailed, as requested by prosecutors. The judge deferred an immediate decision. The captain could face up to 12 years in prison on the abandoning ship charge alone.
Schettino’s attorney, Bruno Leporatti, said in the hearing, the captain had insisted that after the initial crash into the reefs, he had manoeuvred the ship close to shore in a way that “saved hundreds if not thousands of lives.”
Passengers, however, described the evacuation as chaotic.
Steve and Kathy Ledtke, who live in Fort Gratiot, Michigan, said they were sitting down to a late dinner Friday when they realized something had gone wrong. Kathy Ledtke told WDIV-TV that it seemed no one was in charge.
“It was complete chaos and it was every man for himself,” Kathy Ledtke said. “Nobody knew where to go.”
Earlier Tuesday, Italian naval divers exploded holes in the hull of the grounded cruise ship, trying to speed up the search for the missing while seas were still calm. Navy spokesman Alessandro Busonero told Sky TV 24 the holes would help divers enter the wreck more easily.
“We are rushing against time,” he said.
The divers set four microcharges above and below the surface of the water, Busonero said. Video showed one hole above the waterline less than two meters (6 feet) in diameter.
Mediterranean waters in the area were relatively calm Tuesday with waves of just 12 inches (30 centimetres) but they were expected to reach nearly 6 feet (1.8 metres) Wednesday, according to meteorological forecasts.
A Dutch shipwreck salvage firm, meanwhile, said it would take its engineers and divers two to four weeks to extract the 500,000 gallons of fuel aboard the ship. The safe removal of the fuel has become a priority second only to finding the missing, as the wreckage site lies in a maritime sanctuary for dolphins, porpoises and whales.
Preliminary phases of the fuel extraction could begin as early as Wednesday if approved by Italian officials, the company said.
Smit, a Rotterdam, Netherlands-based salvage company, said no fuel had leaked from any of the ship’s tanks and that the tanks appeared intact. While there is a risk the ship could shift in larger waves, to date it has been relatively stable perched on top of rocks near Giglio’s port.
Smit’s operations manager, Kees van Essen, said the company was confident the fuel could safely be extracted using pumps and valves to vacuum the oil out to waiting tanks.
“But there are always environmental risks in these types of operations,” he told reporters.
The company said any discussion about the fate of the ship — whether it is removed in one piece or broken up — would be decided by Italian ship operator Costa Crociere and its insurance companies.
The Miami-based Carnival Corp., which owns the Italian operator, estimated that preliminary losses from having the Concordia out of operation at least through 2012 would be between $85 million and $95 million, along with other costs. The company’s share price slumped more than 16 per cent Monday.
It was not yet clear if the ship — which was completed in 2006 — would ever be able to return to service.
Carnival said its deductible on damage to the ship was approximately $30 million. In addition, the company faces a deductible of $10 million for third-party personal injury liability claims.
Carnival said other costs related to the grounding can’t yet be determined.