Captain of Italian cruise liner accused of abandoning ship

Death toll rises to five in Italian tragedy as an elderly couple found dead, while passengers say they saw captain in lifeboat while others were trying to escape.

Rescuers search the Costa Concordia for more survivors yesterday.
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GIGLIO, ITALY // Coastguard divers searching the submerged part of the Costa Concordia yesterday found the bodies of two elderly people, raising to five the death toll after the luxury cruise liner ran aground and tipped over off the Tuscan coast, authorities said.

The bodies were found at the emergency gathering point near the restaurant where passengers were dining when the ship carrying more than 4,200 people hit a reef or rock near the Tuscan island of Giglio, Coastguard Cmdr Cosimo Nicastro said.

"We are still searching" for any bodies, "but [also] in the hope that there might have been an air pocket" to allow survival, Mr Nicastro told Sky TG24 TV dockside.

The discovery reduced to 15 the number of people still unaccounted for after an Italian who worked in cabin service was pulled from the wreckage Sunday and a South Korean couple on their honeymoon were rescued late Saturday in the unsubmerged part of the liner when a team of rescuers heard their screams.

Authorities are holding the Italian captain for investigation of suspected manslaughter and abandoning his ship among other possible charges. According to the Italian navigation code, a captain who abandons a ship in danger can face up to 12 years in prison.

The ship's chaotic evacuation has added to the difficulty in tracking down survivors. Six of those unaccounted for are crew members, and the others are passengers, said Tuscany's president Enrico Rossi. In the first hours after the accident late Friday night, three bodies were found in the waters near the ship.

The divers' search in the bowels of the ship, which is lying on its side with a huge gash in one side, was already dangerous because of the risk the vessel could suddenly move and sink into waters over a nearby lower sea bed.

But, the divers' safety was increasingly threatened by floating objects in the belly of the 290-metre long liner, as well as muck drastically reducing visibility, Mr Nicastro said.

"There are tents, mattresses, other objects moving which can get tangled in the divers' equipment," Mr Nicastro said. Officials were going to huddle soon to see how long the underwater search could safely continue, he said.

Divers say they are using a kind of long cord they hook near the point of entrance and unroll as they work, so they can find their way out when finished.

Prosecutor Francesco Verusio has confirmed reports that prosecutors are investigating allegations that liner's captain, Francesco Schettino, abandoned the stricken liner before all the passengers had escaped.

Asked Sunday by Sky TG24 about the accusations, Grosseto prosecutor Francesco Verusio replied, "unfortunately, I must confirm that circumstance."

A French couple who boarded the Costa Concordia in Marseille, Ophelie Gondelle and David Du Pays of Marseille, told the associated press they saw the captain in a lifeboat, covered by a blanket, well before all the passengers were off the ship. They insisted on telling a reporter what they saw, so incensed that - according to them - the captain had abandoned the ship before everyone had been evacuated.

"The commander left before and was on the dock before everyone was off," said Ms Gondelle, 28, a French military officer.

"Normally the commander should leave at the end," said Mr Du Pays, a police officer who said he helped an injured passenger to a rescue boat. "I did what I could."

Capt Schettino has said the ship hit rocks that weren't marked on his nautical charts, and that he did all that he could to save lives.

"We were navigating approximately 300 meters (yards) from the rocks," he told Mediaset television. "There shouldn't have been such a rock."

He insisted he didn't leave the liner before all passengers were off, saying "we were the last ones to leave the ship."

But that clearly wasn't the case as the finding of the three survivors aboard Saturday night and yesterday showed.

Coastguard spokesman Capt Filippo Marini told Sky Italia TV that Coastguard divers have recovered the so-called "black box" with the recording of the navigational details from a compartment now under water.

A Dutch firm has been called in to help extract the fuel from the Costa Concordia's tanks before any leaks into the area's pristine waters, Mr Rossi, the regional president, said. No leaks have so far been reported.

While ship owner Costa has insisted it was following the same route it takes every week between the Italian ports of Civitavecchia and Savona, residents on the island of Giglio said they had never seen the Costa Concordia come so close to the Le Scole reefs and rocks that jut out off Giglio's eastern side.

"This was too close, too close," said Italo Arienti, a 54-year-old sailor who has worked on the Maregigilo ferry service that runs between the island and the mainland for more than a decade.

The terrifying escape from the luxury liner, which was on a week-long Mediterranean cruise, was straight out of a scene from "Titanic." Many passengers 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 many to be released.