“You go on board! Is that clear? Do you hear me?” an enraged Italian coastguard chief shouted as the captain of the grounded Costa Concordia sat safe in a life raft and frantic passengers struggled to escape after the ship rammed into a reef off the Tuscan coast.
“It is an order. Don’t make any more excuses. You have declared ’Abandon ship.’ Now I am in charge.”
The dramatic recording shows Captain Francesco Schettino resisted orders to return to his ship to direct the evacuation, saying it was too dark and the ship was tipping perilously.
The exchange came to light as the death toll nearly doubled to 11 after divers pulled the bodies of four men and a woman, all wearing life vests, from the wreckage. Some two dozen people remain missing.
The Costa Concordia had more than 4,200 passengers and crew on board when it slammed into the reef off the tiny island of Giglio on Friday after Schettino made an unauthorised manoeuvre from the ship’s programmed course – apparently to show off the luxury liner to the island’s residents.
Schettino has insisted that he stayed aboard until the ship was evacuated. However the recording of his conversation with Italian coastguard captain Gregorio De Falco makes clear he fled before all passengers were off – and then defied Capt De Falco’s repeated orders to go back.
“Listen Schettino,” Capt De Falco can be heard shouting in the audio tape. “There are people trapped on board. ... You go on board and then you will tell me how many people there are. Is that clear?”
But Schettino resisted, saying the ship was listing and he was with his second-in-command in the lifeboat.
“I am here with the rescue boats. I am here. I am not going anywhere. I am here,” he said. “I am here to co-ordinate the rescue.”
“What are you co-ordinating there? Go on board! Co-ordinate the rescue from aboard the ship. Are you refusing?” came the response.
Schettino said he was not refusing, but he still did not return to the ship, saying at one point: “Do you realise it is dark and here we can’t see anything?”
Capt 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!”
The exchange also indicates that Schettino did not know anyone had died, with Capt De Falco telling him at one point: “There are already bodies now, Schettino.”
“How many bodies?” Schettino asks in a nervous tone.
“You are the one who has to tell me how many there are!” Capt De Falco barks in response.
Schettino was finally heard on the tape agreeing to reboard. But the coastguard has said he never went back, and police arrested him on land several hours later.
The audio, first made available on the website of the Corriere della Sera newspaper and authenticated by the coastguard, was broadcast throughout the day on Italian television to a stunned nation.
Jailed since the accident, Schettino appeared before a judge in Grosseto yesterday, where he was questioned for three hours. The judge ordered him held under house arrest, his lawyer Bruno Leporatti told reporters, and later Italian media said he had returned to his home near Naples.
Criminal charges including manslaughter and abandoning ship are expected to be filed by prosecutors in the coming days. He faces 12 years in prison for the abandoning ship charge alone.
At the hearing, Mr Leporatti said the captain gave his version of events, insisting 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”.
The lawyer said urine and hair samples were taken from Schettino, apparently to determine if he might have consumed alcohol or used drugs before the accident.
Tanned and looking younger than his 52 years, Schettino has worked for 11 years for the ship’s Italian operator, Costa Crociere SpA, achieving the rank of 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.
The five bodies discovered yesterday were adults in their 50s or 60s, each wearing the orange vests that passengers use, indicating they were not crew members, said coastguard spokesman Cmdr Filippo Marini. Their nationalities were not immediately released.
They were discovered after Italian naval divers exploded holes in the hull of the grounded cruise ship, trying to speed up the search for the missing.
Before the grim finding, authorities had said 25 passengers and four crew members were missing. They include two Americans, 14 Germans, six Italians, four French, a Hungarian, an Indian and a Peruvian.
Mediterranean waters in the area were relatively calm Tuesday with waves just a foot high, but they were expected to reach nearly 6ft today, according to meteorological forecasts.
A Dutch shipwreck salvage firm said it would take its engineers and divers two to four weeks to extract the 500,000 gallons of fuel aboard the ship.