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Costa Concordia Captain Says He Was Told to Perform Fatal 'Salute' Maneuver

10:22 AM, Jan 23, 2012   |    comments
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By NBC News, msnbc.com

GIGLIO, Italy -- The operators of the Costa Concordia faced questions over their share of the blame for the shipwreck, as divers recovered another body from the stricken liner Sunday, bringing the known death toll to 13.

Captain Francesco Schettino is accused of steering the cruise ship too close to shore while performing a maneuver known as a "salute" in which liners draw up very close to land to make a display.

PICTURES: Costa Concordia on its Side

Schettino, who is charged with multiple manslaughter and with abandoning ship before the evacuation of 4,200 passengers and crew was complete, has told prosecutors he had been instructed to perform the maneuver by operator Costa Cruises.

Prosecutors say he steered the massive ship within 150 meters of the Tuscan island of Giglio, where it struck a rock that tore a large gash in its hull, letting water flood in and causing the 114,500-ton ship to capsize.

It is now lying on its side on an undersea ledge, half-submerged and posing a growing environmental threat with the risk that it could slide into deeper waters.

As the days have passed, there have been growing questions about the ultimate responsibility for the accident, which Costa Cruises has blamed on "unfortunate human error" and placed firmly on the shoulders of the captain. It has suspended Schettino and will not be paying his legal fees.

Costa chief executive Pier Luigi Foschi has said that ships sometimes engage in "tourist navigation" in which they approach the coast but that this is only done under safe conditions and he was not aware of any riskier approaches so close to the shore.

Costa is a unit of Carnival Corp, the world's largest cruise line operator.

According to transcripts of his hearing with investigators leaked to Italian newspapers, Schettino told magistrates Costa had insisted on the maneuver to please passengers and attract publicity.

"It was planned, we were supposed to have done it a week earlier but it was not possible because of bad weather," Schettino said, according to the Corriere della Sera daily.

"They insisted. They said: 'We do tourist navigation, we have to be seen, get publicity and greet the island'."

He said he had performed similar maneuvers regularly over the past four months on the Costa Concordia and on other ships in the Costa fleet along the Italian coast line which is dotted with small islands that are popular with tourists.

"But we do it every time we do the Sorrento coast, Capri, we do it everywhere," he said.

Foschi, who visited Giglio Sunday, declined to respond to Schettino's latest comments.

"As an investigation by magistrates is currently underway, we cannot give out any information," he said.

Identifying victims
As the search continued into a ninth day, divers found the body of a woman on a submerged deck near the bow of the vessel, bringing the total number of known dead to 13, only eight of whom have been identified.

Unregistered passengers might have been aboard the stricken cruise liner that capsized off this Tuscan island, a top rescue official said Sunday, raising the possibility that the number of missing might be higher than the 20 previously announced.

Civil protection official Francesca Maffini told reporters the victim found on Sunday was wearing a life vest and was found in the rear of a submerged portion of a ship by a team of fire department divers. The unidentified body was being removed from the ship.

Earlier, Italian authorities raised the possibility that the real number of the missing was unknown because some unregistered passengers might have been aboard. As of Sunday, 19 people are listed as missing, but that number could be higher.

"There could have been X persons who we don't know about who were inside, who were clandestine" passengers aboard the ship, Franco Gabrielli, the national civil protection official in charge of the rescue effort, told reporters at a briefing on the island of Giglio.

Gabrielli said that relatives of a Hungarian woman have told Italian authorities that she had telephoned them from aboard the ship and that they haven't heard from her since the accident. He said it was possible that a woman's body pulled from the wreckage by divers on Saturday might be that of the unregistered passenger.

But in addition to the body recovered on Sunday, the body found on Saturday and those of three men found a few days earlier, have yet to be identified, because the corpses were badly decomposed after so much time in the water. Gabrielli said they have identified the other eight bodies: four French, an Italian, a Hungarian, a German and a Spanish national.

Until Sunday, authorities had said that 20 people are still missing.

Broken black box
Meanwhile, police divers, carrying out orders from prosecutors investigating Schettino for suspected manslaughter and abandoning the ship, swam through the cold, dark waters to reach his cabin. State TV and the Italian news agency ANSA reported that the divers located and remove his safe and two suitcases. His passport and several documents were also pulled out, state media said.

Searchers inspecting the bridge Saturday also found a hard disk containing data of the voyage, Sky TG24 TV reported.

Italian newspapers have also published photographs of the Costa Concordia apparently performing the "salute" close to other ports including Syracuse in Sicily and the island of Procida, which is near Naples and Schettino's hometown of Meta di Sorrento.

Schettino said the fatal maneuver was originally intended to bring the ship half a mile from the shore, "but then we brought it to 0.28" (of a nautical mile), he said.

Investigators have said the actual point of impact was much closer to the shore but establishing the exact sequence of events could be complicated by problems with the recording equipment used to track the ship's progress.

Schettino said the black box on board had been broken for two weeks and he had asked for it to be repaired, in vain.

In the hearing, Schettino insisted he had informed Costa's headquarters of the accident straight away and his line of conduct had been approved by the company's marine operations director throughout a series of phone conversations.

As soon as he realized the scale of the damage, he called Roberto Ferrarini, marine operations director for Costa Cruises.

"I told him: I've got myself into a mess, there was contact with the seabed. I am telling you the truth, we passed under Giglio and there was an impact," Schettino said.

"I can't remember how many times I called him in the following hour and 15 minutes. In any case, I am certain that I informed Ferrarini about everything in real time," he said, adding he had asked the company to send tug boats and helicopters.

He acknowledged, however, not raising the alarm with the coastguard promptly and delaying the evacuation order.

"You can't evacuate people on lifeboats and then, if the ship doesn't sink, say it was a joke. I don't want to create panic and have people die for nothing," he said.

Costa Cruises Chief Executive Pier Luigi Foschi says Schettino delayed issuing the SOS and evacuation orders and gave false information to the company headquarters.

"Personally, I think he wasn't honest with us," Foschi told Corriere della Sera Friday. He said the first phone conversation between Schettino and Ferrarini took place 20 minutes after the ship hit the rock.

Documents from his hearing with a judge say he had shown "incredible carelessness" and a "total inability to manage the successive phases of the emergency."

Taped conversations show ship's officers told coastguards who were alerted by passengers that the vessel had only had a power cut, even after those on board donned lifevests.

According to transcripts of his questioning by prosecutors leaked to Italian media, he said that immediately after hitting the rock he sent two of his officers to the engine room to check on the state of the vessel.

Holding out hope
Meanwhile, family members of a couple from the state of Minnesota still missing after last week's cruise ship wreck say they've been meeting in Italy with rescue workers.

In an email statement sent Saturday night to news organizations, relatives of Jerry and Barbara Heil say the captain in charge of the operation indicated he wasn't ready to give up hope that the missing can be found.

The family members say they and relatives of others missing from the Costa Concordia accident were taken out near the ship and allowed to place flowers in the water honoring their loved ones. They say the workers stopped what they were doing and saluted during the tribute.

The Heil family says it's grateful for the efforts from the workers trying to find the missing.

The search had been halted for several hours early Sunday, after instrument readings indicated that the Concordia has shifted a bit on its precarious perch on a seabed just outside Giglio's port. A few yards away, the sea bottom drops off suddenly, by some 65-100 feet, and if the Concordia should abruptly roll off its ledge, rescuers could be trapped inside.

The effort to find survivors and bodies has postponed an operation to remove heavy fuel in the Concordia's tanks; specialized equipment has been standing by for days.

Light fuel, apparently from machinery aboard the capsized ship, was spotted in nearby waters, authorities said Saturday.

Environment experts have warned that contamination of the pristine waters around Giglio, which is in the middle of a national marine park, is already under way and it is imperative to start recovering the fuel oil as soon as possible.

NBC News

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