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Captain of Costa Concordia refused orders to reboard

Captain Francesco Schettino (C) of cruise ship Costa Concordia is escorted into a prison by police officers at Grosseto, after being questioned by magistrates.

STAFF/Reuters

On a day when five more bodies were pulled from the Costa Concordia cruise ship, an extraordinary audio recording revealed its captain's bizarre behaviour in the hours following the Italian shipwreck.

The shouting match between Francesco Schettino, the ship's captain, and Captain Gregorio de Falco of the Italian coast guard station in Livorno, about 100 kilometres north of Friday evening's Tuscan coast shipwreck, revealed Capt. Schettino's strange excuses to avoid assisting the ship's evacuation.

"Get back on board!" Capt. De Falco yelled at the evasive captain.

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The Costa Concordia hit the rocks off the small Tuscan island of Giglio at 9:42 p.m. Friday, after the ship apparently deviated from its normal course. It hit the granite rocks close to the island's outer flank and keeled over. Several reports said that Capt. Schettino went unusually close to Giglio to "salute" the island home of his head waiter.

While many passengers remained aboard hours after the 114,000-ton Costa Concordia turned nearly horizontal, Mr. Schettino ignored Capt. De Falco's orders to return to the ship, which had been carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew.

In the recording, made shortly after midnight Friday, a clearly exasperated Capt. De Falco shouts at Capt. Schettino: "You go on board and then you will tell me how many people there are. Is that clear?"

Capt. Schettino makes a string of unlikely excuses. He says the "the boat is tipping," then that another lifeboat is in the way, interfering with his own return. "I am not going because the other lifeboat is stopped," he tells Capt. De Falco.

Moments later, Capt. Schettino asks, "How many bodies are there?"

Capt. De Falco, apparently shocked by the question, screams back: "I don't know. I have heard of one. You are the one who has to tell me how many there are. Christ."

Capt. Schettino then makes another excuse: "But do you realize it is dark and here we can't see a thing."

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Capt. Schettino, 52, made a brief appearance in court yesterday in the Tuscan city of Grosseto, where he was detained without bail. He has not been formally charged, but faces criminal charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship before all the passengers were evacuated.

Through his Italian lawyer, Capt. Schettino maintained his innocence Tuesday. The lawyer insisted that the ship hit uncharted rocks and that Capt. Schettino's U-turn after the collision, which brought the ship as close as possible to the Giglio island, saved "hundreds, if not thousands of lives." The cruise company that owns the Costa Concordia, Carnival Corp. of Miami, is blaming Capt. Schettino for the disaster, saying he deviated from the safe course plotted before the voyage, which had started in Civitavecchia, a port city just north of Rome.

The five bodies found Tuesday in the $450-million (U.S.) Costa Concordia brings the death toll to at least 11, leaving 24 passengers still missing (some reports put the number at 25) and four crew. The missing include 14 Germans, six Italian, four French, two Americans, one Hungarian, one Peruvian and one Indian.

All of the dozen Canadians on board survived and were taken to the Canadian embassy in Rome over the weekend, where they were given new passports and financial assistance so they could return home.

The five bodies recovered Tuesday were found shortly after dawn, after several holes were blasted into the side of the stern to give rescue workers better access to any trapped survivors.

All of the five deceased, whose ages ranged between 50 and 60, were wearing life jackets. Their nationalities were not immediately known.

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By nightfall – four full days after the wreck – the hope of finding more survivors had all but faded as the ship sank slightly lower in the water and temperatures dropped.

Italians were dumbfounded by the apparent display of cowardice or incompetence, or both, by Capt. Schettino's decision to abandon the ship as much as four hours before the evacuation was complete.

A former cruise ship employee who worked on some of the same Mediterranean-based Carnival cruise ships as Capt. Schettino between 2000 and 2004, said he was surprised by the captain's deviation from the set course and his botched control of the rescue effort, which by most accounts was chaotic. "When I worked with him, he was in charge of ship security," said Stefano Stoppaccioli, who is now dean of students at American University of Rome. "He would have been well aware of the safety procedures. He had a long experience."

When he overlapped with Capt. Schettino, Mr. Stoppaccioli was in charge of "master station" – a spot on the ship where passengers would gather in an emergency. He said all of the employees of the Costa Concordia would have been well trained in emergency procedures.

Mr. Stoppaccioli said he did not know the captain well enough to determine whether he was incompetent or mentally unstable. "What I think is that he lost it completely," he said. "I believe he panicked."

The shipwreck has soiled the image of Carnival, the employer of a captain apparently guilty of irresponsible behaviour.

Bloomberg reported Tuesday that Mickey Arison, Carnival's chairman and chief executive officer, who is also the owner of the Miami Heat basketball team, had not made an appearance in Italy as of Tuesday to manage the fallout from the company's worst maritime disaster. Instead, he has left it to his top Italian managers to deal with the fallout.

Some Italians were embarrassed by Capt. Schettino. A report in the Corriere della Sera, Italy's biggest newspaper, accused the captain of "unforgivable irresponsibility." Some Facebook users wrote about the "shame" of abandoning the ship.

The foreign press could not resist attacking Capt. Schettino. Writing in the Daily Telegraph's website, British author Toby Young said the captain's behaviour must be a "source of deep national shame" and that he thought a British captain of the same ship would have stuck with the ship, as the Titanic's captain, Edward Smith, did (Capt. Smith died along with 1,516 Titanic passengers). A columnist of Britain's Mail called him "Captain Coward."

As night fell, another potential disaster awaited the stricken Costa Concordia – oil leaks.

The ship sailed from Civitavecchia with about 2,400 tonnes of fuel oil. A Dutch salvage company, SMIT, has been hired to remove the oil from the ship's many tanks.

But the ship has been moving slightly and there is some risk it could slip father out to sea. Weather conditions have been good so far, but a storm or large waves could make the oil-siphoning effort exceedingly difficult, raising the chances of spilled oil. According to various reports, removing the oil could take a week or two.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- THREE ESCAPES

From a magician's box

Everything was going as planned as Rosalyn Rincon, acting the part of magician's assistant, got into the "magic box" in a Friday-evening show for the cruise passengers. Then there was a groaning crunch. The ship shuddered. The lights went out. The magicians and his audience were gone – to various parts of the ship amid confusing, contradictory instructions. And Ms. Rincon was alone in the box. These contraptions aren't meant to be opened from the inside. "She struggled to get out," Ms. Rincon's mother, Claire Rincon, told BBC News from the family's home in Lancashire. She added her daughter cut her leg extricating herself. Scraped up and soaking wet from her efforts to get to safety, Ms. Rincon made an emergency phone call from the listing ship. At first, her mother didn't believe her. "Rosalyn was a bit hysterical, saying the ship was sinking. But seeing she's a dancer, and they do drama, I just thought it was all a bit surreal. You don't hear about big ships sinking like that nowadays."

By rope

For three hours in the chilly dark, amid the screams of stranded passengers, honeymooners Emily Lau and Benji Smith of Cambridge, Mass., clung to a rope flung over the side of a listing ship, waiting. They didn't know if anyone was going to rescue them, or when – any crew members they could see had long since left the ship. Michael, Mr. Smith's brother, suspects it was Benji's idea for more than 300 panicking passengers to create makeshift rope ladders and lower themselves down the port hull of the ship; with no one in charge, Michael Smith says, no one knew what to do or where to go. Hours later, shaken and shivering, the couple clambered into a lifeboat someone had taken back from shore to pick them up. Days later, safe and largely unharmed, the two are still reliving their escape, Michael Smith says. He added his brother is looking into legal action.

By helicopter

The sound is what sticks with Rose Metcalf. "Absolutely unbelievable, terrifying – a groan is a very apt description," she told the BBC. After that Ms. Metcalf, a dancer on the ship, waited with other crew members for the signal when they should start their emergency procedure. But nothing came – just an announcement a few minutes after the stomach-churning sound of reef gashing into hull: "We were told there was an electrical, possibly a generator fault, and everything would resume to normal – we should wait and just keep calm." But no one was calm as the ship kept leaning further and further over. "There was absolute panic. Absolute panic. People were white, people were crying, screaming." Ms. Metcalf tried to herd passengers into lifeboats, but held back, trying to keep away from the crush of people. She knew half the ship's escape craft would be rendered useless thanks to how steeply it was listing. She climbed onto the fifth-level deck, trying to wave to full lifeboats so they'd signal rescue helicopters above them. Ms. Metcalf was one of the last people to be lifted off the ship.

Anna Mehler Paperny

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About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More

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