Italian skipper blamed for cruise ship grounding

Maritime authorities, passengers and mounting evidence are focusing blame for the grounding of an Italian cruise ship off the Tuscan coast on its captain.

Death toll climbs to 5; 15 remain missing

Maritime authorities, passengers and mounting evidence are focusing blame for the grounding of an Italian cruise ship off the Tuscan coast on its captain.

The Costa Concordia ran aground Friday night, but search and rescue operations continued throughout Sunday. Divers searching the murky depths of the partially submerged ship found the bodies of two elderly men still in their life jackets, bringing the confirmed death toll to five. At least 15 people remain missing.

The bodies were discovered at an emergency gathering point near the restaurant where many of the 4,234 on board were dining when the luxury liner struck rocks or a reef off the tiny island of Giglio. The Italian news agency ANSA reported the dead men were an Italian and a Spaniard.

Still, there were glimmers of hope: Rescuers located three survivors — a honeymooning South Korean couple were found in their cabin early Sunday, while a crew member who suffered serious leg injuries, Manrico Gianpetroni, was brought to shore in a dramatic airlift 36 hours after the grounding late Friday.

Costa Concordia Capt. Francesco Schettino, right, is escorted by an officer in Grosseto on Saturday. (Reuters)

On shore, attention focused on Capt. Francesco Schettino, who was spotted by coast guard officials and passengers fleeing the scene even as the chaotic and terrifying evacuation was underway.

The ship's Italian owner, a subsidiary of Carnival Cruise lines, issued a statement late Sunday saying Schettino "made errors of judgment that had very grave consequences."

Authorities were holding Schettino for suspected manslaughter and a prosecutor confirmed Sunday they were also investigating allegations the captain abandoned the stricken liner before all the passengers had escaped. According to the Italian navigation code, a captain who abandons a ship in danger can face up to 12 years in prison.

First Officer Ciro Ambrosio has also been detained, authorities confirmed Sunday.

A French couple who boarded the Concordia in Marseille, Ophelie Gondelle and David Du Pays, told The Associated Press they saw the captain in a lifeboat, covered with a blanket, well before all the passengers were off the ship.

"The commander left before and was on the dock before everyone was off," said Gondelle, 28, a French military officer.

Italian navy divers approach the listing cruise ship Costa Concordia. The divers rescued a crew member from the ship on Sunday. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

"Normally the commander should only leave at the end," said Du Pays, a police officer who said he helped an injured passenger to a rescue boat. "I did what I could."

Coast guard officers who spotted Schettino on land urged him to return to his ship and honour his duty to stay aboard until everyone was safely off the vessel, but he ignored them, coast guard Cmdr. Francesco Paolillo said.

Prosecutor Francesco Verusio was quoted by ANSA, the Italian news agency, as saying Schettino, 52, deliberately chose a sea route that was too close to shore. 

ANSA reported Schettino, who has worked for Costa Cruises for 11 years, will be held until next week, when a judge will decide whether he should be released or formally put under arrest.

According to news reports, Schettino has insisted that he and Ambrosio were the "last to leave the ship." Schettino also told Italian television that he didn't realize there was a massive rock there because the "nautical charts had marked it was water."

"We were navigating approximately 300 metres from the rocks," he told Mediaset television. "There shouldn't have been such a rock."

He insisted he didn't leave the liner before all passengers were off, saying "we were the last ones to leave the ship."

On Sunday, survivors began telling harrowing stories of their escape from the sinking ship and of what they say was incompetence on the part of the crew. Survivors also said the company has done little to assist them since the incident.

"They haven't taken care of absolutely nothing!" Lynn Kaelin, an American, told CBC News on Sunday.

'They haven't taken care of absolutely nothing!'— Passenger Lynn Kaelin on the lack of help survivors have received from cruise line officials.

During the chaos of Friday night, Kaelin said, passengers were confused about what to do when the luxury boat ran aground off the Tuscan coast. She heard an announcement telling them to gather on the fourth floor and once there, they were told to go up another floor.

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"They never, ever made an announcement to abandon ship," recounted Kaelin, who said when passengers started to realize they had to do that, none of the crew seemed able to help.

"No one had any directions … and they were all these young kids — there were no adults — who had no training [and] they didn't know how to release the boats."

In Sunday's statement, Costa Cruises said "all crewmembers hold a BST (Basic Safety Training) certificate and are trained and prepared in emergency management and to assist passengers abandoning the ship with numerous drills."

Costa Cruises history

  • 2010: Two collisions, power failure blamed.
  • 2009: Engine problems, fire in generator room.
  • 2008: Almost collided with car transporter.

Police divers and rescue crews on Sunday circled the wreckage searching for more of the missing.

Crews in dinghies touched the hull with their hands, near the site of the 50-metre-long gash where water flooded in and caused the ship to list. Coast guard officials have said divers would enter the belly of the ship to see if anyone is still inside.

Coast guard spokesman Capt. Filippo Marini told Sky Italia TV that coast guard divers have recovered the so-called "black box," which records navigational details, from a compartment now under water.

With files from The Associated Press