Cruise Captain Under Scrutiny, 6th Body Found

Published January 16, 2012 10:36AM (EST)

ROME (AP) — Rescuers raced against time and increasingly turbulent waters Monday in search of survivors from the capsized Costa Concordia cruise ship off the Tuscan coast, while prosecutors focused on the captain, who is accused of abandoning the ship well before passengers were safely evacuated.

A sixth body was discovered in the overturned vessel as the rescue mission entered its third day; 16 passengers and crew were still missing after the ship carrying 4,200 struck a reef off the island of Giglio. The body of the male passenger was spotted in a corridor of the part of the Costa Concordia still above water, fire department spokesman Luca Cari said. The victim was wearing a life vest.

"We are still working to pull the body out of the ship," Cari told The Associated Press. "The sea conditions make it difficult to get into the ship."

The number of the missing was raised after relatives of two Sicilian women who had been listed among those safely evacuated after Friday night's grounding told authorities they not heard from them.

Giglio Mayor Sergio Ortelli said rescuers were in "one of the most important phases" as they sought those who may have found an air pocket. The mission includes a risky inspection of the underwater half of the capsized ship. But, he conceded to Sky News 24, the chances of finding survivors was dwindling.

Rising turbulence led to concerns Monday that the ship — which has on board some 2,500 tons of fuel — could become unstable, creating the threat of a possible environmental disaster on top of the human loss. No leaks into the pristine waters have been reported so far, and a Dutch firm has been called in to help extract the fuel.

"The environmental risk for the island of Giglio is extremely high," said Environment Minister Corrado Clini said, according to the news agency ANSA. "The goal is to avoid that the fuel leaks from the ship. We are working on this. The intervention is urgent."

On Sunday, divers found the bodies of two elderly men. Three other bodies were found in the hours after the accident. 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 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 Sunday saying there appeared to be "significant human error" on the part of the captain, Francesco Schettino, "which resulted in these grave consequences."

"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," Costa said in a statement.

Carnival PLC, the owner of the capsized boat, saw its share price plummet by around a fifth.

"At this time, our priority is the safety of our passengers and crew," Carnival CEO Micky Arison said in a statement. "We are deeply saddened by this tragic event and our hearts go out to everyone affected by the grounding of the Costa Concordia and especially to the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives."

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.

Schettino insisted he didn't 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 maneuver to entertain tourists on the island.

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 Friday.

Costa captains have occasionally steered the ship near port and sounded the siren in a special salute, Arienti said. Such a nautical "fly-by" was staged last August, prompting the town's mayor to send a note of thanks to the commander for the treat it provided tourists who flock to the island, local news portal reported.But Arienti and other residents said even on those occasions, the cruise ship always stayed far offshore, well beyond the reach of the "Le Scole" reefs.

Coast Guard Cmdr. Filippo Marini said divers had recovered the so-called "black box," with the recording of the navigational details, from a compartment now under water, though no details were released.

Survivors described a terrifying escape that was straight out of a scene from "Titanic." Many complained the crew didn't give them good directions on how to evacuate and once the emergency became clear, delayed lowering the lifeboats until the ship was listing too heavily for all to be released.

"We were left to ourselves," pregnant French passenger Isabelle Mougin, who injured her ankle in the scramble, told the ANSA news agency.

Another French passenger, Jeanne Marie de Champs, said that faced with the chaotic scene at the lifeboats, she decided to take her chances swimming to shore.

"I was afraid I wouldn't make the shore, but then I saw we were close enough, I felt calmer," she told Sky News 24.


Malin Rising in Stockholm, Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris, Gregorio Borgia in Giglio, Victor L. Simpson in Rome and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed.

By Salon Staff

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