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Cruise Ship Captain Says He Fell Overboard Amid Chaos

Rescuers suspended operations on Wednesday after the stricken cruise liner Costa Concordia shifted on the rocks here as a farcical new twist emerged from the horrific accounts of the wreck, with the captain rebutting accusations that he abandoned ship by saying he tripped during the passenger panic on deck, fell overboard and ended up in a life boat.

Costa Concordia cruise liner captain Francesco Schettino (R) is escorted by an Italian policeman in Grosseto on January 14, 2012. The Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground and keeled over off the Isola del Giglio, late on January 13.
Photo: AFP | Getty Images
Costa Concordia cruise liner captain Francesco Schettino (R) is escorted by an Italian policeman in Grosseto on January 14, 2012. The Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground and keeled over off the Isola del Giglio, late on January 13.

The new explanation by the captain, Francesco Schettino, for why he vacated the $450 million vessel after he smashed into the rocks last Friday night, came as his earlier account of hitting an uncharted obstruction received a credible boost. Lloyd’s List, a leading maritime publication, said on Wednesday the ship had sailed close to the island on a previous occasion in August of last year, when it came within 230 meters of the coast — “slightly closer to the shore than where it subsequently hit rocks on Friday.”

In a remarkable admission, Captain Schettino was quoted by the La Repubblica newspaper as telling investigators that he had not planned to leave the ship as it tilted toward the water.

“The passengers were pouring onto the decks, taking the lifeboats by assault,” he said, according to the newspaper. “I didn’t even have a life jacket because I had given it to one of the passengers. I was trying to get people to get into the boats in an orderly fashion. Suddenly, since the ship was at a 60 to 70 degree angle, I tripped and I ended up in one of the boats. That’s how I found myself there.”

The drama has captivated Italy, offering the land a national metaphor at a time of political uncertainty and economic challenge, a juxtaposition of hero and anti-hero: Captain Schettino, 52, pilloried in the Italian media for leaving the ship prematurely, and Capt. Gregorio Maria De Falco, a coast guard officer, who tried to cajole him into returning to the helm.

Indeed, some of the media coverage has cast the final moments of the shipwreck as a clash of good and evil.

Referring to Captain De Falco, the headline of a front page editorial in Italy’s leading newspaper Corriere della Sera on Wednesday said, “Thanks, Captain.”

The behavior of the two captains, the journalist Aldo Grasso wrote in the newspaper, contrasted the “two souls of Italy” — one of them represented by a “cowardly fellow who flees his own responsibilities, both as a man and as an official” and the man who tries to bring him back to his responsibilities.

A sentence loosely translated into English as “Get back aboard! Damn it” that Captain De Falco shouted in Schettino’s ears has already become an icon in Italy, emblazoning T-shirts for sale on the Web.

“It is more than a cry, full of sorrow, it’s a motivational hymn, a sign of renewed pride,” Mr. Grasso said in Corriere della Sera, while Captain Schettino’s insistence that it was too dark to rejoin the vessel was “the cry of a child,” according to columnist Adriano Sofri in La Repubblica.

In an interview with a local newspaper here, Il Tirreno. Captain De Falco was quoted as saying: “I am not a hero or an iron man. My team and I just did our duty.”

On Wednesday, Fillipo Marini, a Coast Guard spokesman, said that sensors aboard the vessel recorded a slight movement just after first light, forcing divers to delay plans to blast five more holes in the hull to open up new access routes into the vessel, listing at an extreme angle in calm seas. Divers looking for bodies or survivors say it is too risky to enter the hull if there is a chance that the ship will shift further.

“Stability of the ship is crucial to us,” said Antonino Pireddo, one of 40 divers with experience working in caves who have been searching the central part of the ship since Tuesday. “If the ship is moving, the risk is too high,” he said in an interview, offering an insight into the difficult conditions the divers are encountering aboard the half-sunk liner. “The floating furniture does not make our work easier. The shop windows were above my head yesterday.”

Luca Cari, a spokesman for the firefighters who are leading the operation, said on Tuesday that there was still a “glimmer of hope” that survivors might be found, while Mr. Marini, the Italian coast guard spokesman, said rescuers were hoping that some of those listed as missing had simply left without notifying the authorities. But the delay in the rescue operation deepened pessimism on Wednesday about the prospects of finding survivors.

Salvage crews, meanwhile, waited to begin pumping the 2,300 tons of fuel out of the liner’s submerged tanks to avert a potential ecological disaster around Giglio, best known as a destination for tourists from the nearby Tuscan mainland.

Both rescuers and salvage teams are keeping a close eye on the weather in light of forecasts of high winds on Thursday.

Confusion remained over how many people were still missing. With the discovery of five more bodies on Tuesday, the known death toll rose to 11. Italian officials said before the bodies were found that at least 24 people from the ship were still unaccounted for, including two Americans, Gerald and Barbara Heil, a retired Minnesota couple married for 43 years.

But later accounts from Italian authorities put the number of missing at 23.

Captain Schettino has been placed under house arrest at his home in Sorrento, about 250 miles south of the shipwreck site. Criminal charges including manslaughter and abandoning ship are expected to be filed by prosecutors in coming days.

Prosecutors said Wednesday they may appeal the decision to allow the skipper to return home, arguing that he may seek to flee. In a statement, they said that it was “evident and indisputable” that the maneuvers leading to the shipwreck were “seriously imprudent.”

Additionally, they accused Captain Schettino of abandoning ship with more than 300 passengers still on board, waiting more than 30 minutes to signal an emergency and failing to alert port authorities here. Moreover, prosecutors said, the alarm was raised in the end by cellphone calls from Italian passengers to police on the mainland.

The captain’s lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, said in a statement that Mr. Schettino had saved “hundreds, if not thousands” of lives because he brought the ship close to shore after it hit a rock.

The ship quickly began to list heavily to starboard as panicked passengers and crew members made pell-mell escapes, evoking images of the Titanic’s final moments.

The owners of the vessel, Costa Cruises, have acknowledged that the cruise liner changed course once before on Aug. 14, 2011, to sail close to Giglio at the time of a festival call La Notte di San Lorenzo, but the company had insisted that it was never closer than 500 meters from the rocky coastline, Lloyd’s List reported on Wednesday.

But, citing its own tracking facilities, Lloyd’s List said the previous, authorized route last August “took the vessel far closer to Giglio than the 500 meters claimed by” the owners, and within 200 meters of the “point of collision” on Friday.

On Tuesday, publication of the transcripts of exchanges between the coast guard and the captain added a dramatic new dimension to the accounts of the accident on Friday night, when Captain Schettino apparently tried to show off the gleaming cruise liner to residents of Giglio, and in the process ripped a hole in its hull.

“Go up on the bow of the ship on a rope ladder, and tell me what you can do, how many people are there and what they need — now!” Captain De Falco told Captain Schettino by telephone as the captain bobbed Friday night in a lifeboat, as revealed in audio recordings published by Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian newspaper.

“All right, I’m going,” Captain Schettino is heard to reply.

The recordings and transcripts suggested that the coast guard officer was stupefied that Captain Schettino had vacated the ship before accounting for all 4,200 passengers and crew members on board. They also indicate that the captain did not know that people had died, and had asked the coast guard officer for an accounting.

“You are the one who has to tell me how many there are! Christ!” the officer screams at the captain in response.

Prosecutors and the cruise line that owns the ship have blamed Captain Schettino for the wreck, saying he deviated from the course plotted in advance. Captain Schettino has said that he hit an uncharted rock.

News, photos and video from the shipwreck have sent shudders through the cruise industry at the most important time of the year for vacation bookings. In a sign of growing concern, Micky Arison, chief executive of the Costa Concordia’s parent company, Carnival of Miami, the largest cruise line operator, issued a statement on Tuesday expressing grief at word of the newly discovered bodies. Mr. Arison also disclosed that Carnival had sent senior technical experts to Giglio to offer “additional support for this tragic and highly unusual incident.”