The captain of a cruise liner that ran aground and capsized off the Tuscan coast faced accusations from authorities and passengers that he abandoned ship before everyone was safely evacuated and was showing off when he steered the vessel far too close to shore.
Divers searching the murky depths of the partially submerged Costa Concordia found the bodies of two elderly men still in their life jackets, bringing the confirmed death toll to five.
At least 15 people were still missing.
The recovered bodies were discovered at an emergency gathering point near the restaurant where many of the 4,200 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 were an Italian and a Spaniard.
Still, there were glimmers of hope: The rescue of three survivors – a young South Korean couple on their honeymoon and a crew member brought to shore in a dramatic airlift some 36 hours after the grounding late on Friday.
Meanwhile, attention focused on the captain, who was spotted by Coast Guard officials and passengers fleeing the scene even as the chaotic and terrifying evacuation was under way.
The ship’s Italian owner, a subsidiary of Carnival Cruise lines, issued a statement late yesterday saying there appeared to be “significant human error” on the part of the captain, Francesco Schettino, “which resulted in these grave consequences”.
Authorities were holding Capt Schettino for suspected manslaughter and a prosecutor confirmed 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.
A French couple who boarded the Concordia in Marseille, Ophelie Gondelle and David Du Pays, said they saw the captain in a lifeboat, covered by 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 Ms Gondelle, 28, a French military officer.
“Normally the commander should only leave at the end,” said Mr Du Pays, a police officer who said he helped an injured passenger to a rescue boat. “I did what I could.”
Coast Guard officers later spotted Capt Schettino on land as the evacuation unfolded. The officers 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 Commander Francesco Paolillo said.
Capt Schettino insisted he did not leave the liner early, telling Mediaset television that he had done everything he could to save lives. “We were the last ones to leave the ship,” he said.
Questions also swirled about why the ship had navigated so close to the dangerous reefs and rocks that jut off Giglio’s eastern coast, amid suspicions the captain may have ventured too close while carrying out a manoeuvre to entertain tourists on the island.
The ship’s owner, Costa Crociere SpA, issued a statement saying it was working with investigators to determine “precisely what went wrong aboard the Costa Concordia”.
“While the investigation is ongoing, preliminary indications are that there may have been significant human error on the part of the ship’s master, Captain Francesco Schettino, which resulted in these grave consequences,” the statement said.
“The route of the vessel appears to have been too close to the shore, and the captain’s judgment in handling the emergency appears to have not followed standard Costa procedures.”
Residents of Giglio said they had never seen the Costa come so close to the dangerous Le Scole reef area.
“This was too close, too close,” said Italo Arienti, a 54-year-old sailor who has worked on the Maregiglio ferry between Giglio and the mainland for more than a decade.
Pointing to a nautical map, he drew his finger along the path the ship usually takes and the jarring one close to shore that it followed on Friday.
The ship was a mere 150 yards from shore at the time of the grounding, Ansa quoted Grosseto prosecutor Francesco Verusio as saying.
Capt Schettino insisted he was twice as far out and said the ship ran aground because the rocks were not marked on his nautical charts.
However, he did concede he was manoeuvring the ship in “touristic navigation” - implying a route that was a deviation from the norm and designed to entertain the tourists.
“We were navigating approximately 300 metres from the rocks,” he told Mediaset television. “There shouldn’t have been such a rock. On the nautical chart it indicated that there was water deep below.”