A young Moldovan woman who says she was called to the bridge of the stricken Costa Concordia to help evacuate Russian passengers, defended its embattled captain, saying he worked tirelessly and "saved over 3,000 lives".
Domnica Cemortan, who says she was translating Francesco Schettino's orders during the frenzied evacuation, has emerged as a potential new witness in the investigation into the officer's actions the night the ship ran aground.
Schettino is under house arrest, facing possible charges of manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing a shipwreck after he made an unauthorised detour from the programmed route that caused the vessel to slam into a reef and capsize off the Tuscan island of Giglio. At least 11 people were killed and 21 are missing.
Meanwhile, a new audiotape of the doomed vessel's first communications with maritime authorities showed the ship's officers continued to report only an electrical problem for more than 30 minutes after hitting the reef.
Attention has focused on Ms Cemortan amid reports by crew members and passengers that Schettino was seen eating dinner with a Russian-speaking woman at the time of the impact.
Ms Cemortan, 25, speaks Russian and had worked as a hostess for the Italian cruise operator, although her contract had expired and she was holidaying with friends when she boarded the luxury liner hours before the January 13 disaster.
"I saw him at the restaurant. He was with a blonde woman. He did not look drunk. They were just eating," Filipino cocktail waitress Gladly Balderama said of Schettino.
Another Filipino crew member, Roger Barsita, said he served Schettino and a woman dinner.
"I have no idea who she is," he said. "Some of the waiters said she's Russian."
In interviews with Moldovan media, Ms Cemortan said she was dining with "colleagues, so to speak" in the ship's restaurant when the ship struck the reef.
She said she was summoned to the bridge to translate instructions for passengers, particularly Russians, since she speaks several languages. Moldova is a former Soviet republic.
"All our colleagues made announcements in different languages because there was a problem with the electricity. It was very dark on the ship," she told the Moldovan daily Adevarul.
"I stayed on the bridge in case the captain needed me to make an announcement. There were about 20 more officers, cruise directors and the captain."
She defended Schettino and crew members against criticism of a chaotic evacuation, saying they saved thousands of lives.
"He did a great thing, he saved over 3,000 lives," she told Moldova's Jurnal TV.
Prosecutor Francesco Verusio declined to comment on Italian media reports that Ms Cemortan was being sought as a witness.
Divers, meanwhile, were focusing on an evacuation route on the ship's fourth level, now about 60 feet below the surface, where five bodies were found earlier this week, navy spokesman Alessandro Busonero said.
Crews set off small explosions to blow holes into hard-to-reach areas for easier access by divers.
Seven of the dead were identified yesterday by authorities - four French passengers, one Spanish and one Italian passenger and one Peruvian crew member. Italian passenger Giovanni Masia, who would have been 86 next week, was buried in Sardinia.
Italian authorities have identified 32 people who have either died or are missing: two Americans, 12 Germans, seven Italians, six French, two Peruvians and one person each from Hungary, India and Spain.
A new audiotape of the Concordia's first contact with maritime authorities appeared to support allegations that the captain and other senior officers were slow to recognise the seriousness of the accident.
In the tape, which begins at 10.12pm, the port authority asks if everything is OK. A Concordia officer replies that the ship had experienced a blackout, even though it had hit the reef more than half an hour earlier.
Italian media reported the officer on the call was Schettino, but that could not be independently confirmed.
The port official tells the officer that a relative of a crew member had reported to police on the mainland that "during the dinner everything fell on his head" - a reference to flying plates and glasses in the ship's restaurant after the impact.
"No, negative, we have a blackout and we are verifying the conditions on board," the response came. The port official then asked if passengers had put on life vests.
"I repeat, we are verifying the conditions of the blackout," the officer said.
Passengers and crew members have blamed Schettino and other senior officers for failing to act quickly, delaying evacuation until the ship was listing too severely to lower many of the lifeboats.