Costa Concordia Saturday Night Update: Italian Captain Detained as Probe Into Crash Goes On

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January 14, 2012

Italian authorities on Saturday were investigating what caused a cruise ship to run aground off the Tuscan shore, triggering a confused evacuation in which three people died and dozens remain missing.

A spokeswoman for the Italian coast guard on Saturday said the Costa Concordia‘s captain, Francesco Schettino, had been detained for questioning by police and coast-guard officials. Mr. Schettino has said the rock formation hit by the ship Friday night off the small island of Giglio wasn’t marked on nautical maps, according to the coast-guard spokeswoman. Mr. Schettino, who hasn’t been charged, was being held in a prison in the town of Grosseto and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Two survivors were found in one of the ship’s rooms nearly a a day after the ship rolled onto its side. They were identinfied as a South Korean couple on their honeymoon.

Prato fire commander Vincenzo Bennardo said rescuers who had been banging on doors of the ship cabins all night finally heard a reply from one of the rooms early Sunday. He said the two, about 29 years old, were in good condition.

Italian authorities late Saturday recovered the ship’s black-box recorder, but it’s too soon to say what, if anything, it may reveal about the accident.

Antonio Belardo, a local official, said the ship deviated from its “usual” route in order to give passengers a view of Giglio’s port. That meant navigating a strait, so that the ship could skirt a stretch of the small island’s coastline that faces mainland Italy.

Gianni Onorato, managing director of Carnival Corp.’s Costa Cruises, which operated the ship, told reporters on Saturday that the course taken by the ship Friday evening was “not a defined route for passing Giglio.” However, Mr. Onorato said it would be “incorrect to say the ship was off course,” adding that he was unaware of all of the possible routes available to the captain at the time.

“It’s difficult to say at this moment what happened,” Mr. Onorato said, adding that the company was cooperating with authorities to “shed light on the causes of this tragedy that is unprecedented in our 64-year history.”

Italian media reported that the boat hit a grouping of rocks known as Le Scole, located about one kilometer, or a half-mile, off the coast of Giglio.

As darkness descended Saturday in Italy, search and rescue operations involving fire department divers and coast guard divers were suspended for the night, officials said. Helicopters and sea searches of the area were continuing.

The Costa Concordia ship was lying basically flat off the coast of the tiny island of Giglio, its starboard side submerged in the water and the huge gash showing clearly on its upturned hull. While only a small section of the submerged area was inspected, no signs of any survivors or victims were immediately found, said Capt. Emilio Del Santos, of the port captain’s office in Livorno.

Three bodies were recovered from the sea after the ship with 4,234 people aboard ran aground hundreds of yards off the tiny island of Giglio near the coast of Tuscany, tearing a 160-foot (50-meter) gash in its hull and sending in a rush of water. Helicopters whisked some survivors to safety, others were rescued by private boats in the area, and witnesses said some people jumped from the ship into the cold sea.

One of the victims was a Peruvian crew member, a diplomat from the South American country said, adding that a Peruvian woman was also missing. A French Foreign Ministry official confirmed that two of the bodies Frenchmen, both tourists.

Coast guard officials in Porto Santo Stefano, where the survivors disembarked, said it would take hours at least to completely go through the cruise ship’s lists. As names of survivors were checked off, they were being communicated to consulates inquiring about the fate of their citizens aboard.

Some 30 people were reported injured, most of them suffering only bruises, but at least two people were reported to be in grave condition. Several passengers came off the ferries on stretchers, but it appeared more out of exhaustion and shock than serious injury.

As authorities and port officials matched names on the cruise ship’s list of passengers and crew with those of survivors getting off ferries or other boats on the mainland, the number of the unaccounted for dropped to roughly 40.

Passengers who escaped the cruise liner on Saturday recounted a chaotic and terrifying evacuation through the ship’s upended hallways, in a scene called by some as reminiscent of the film “Titanic.” Some passengers said the crew failed to give instructions on how to evacuate and once the emergency became clear, delayed lowering the lifeboats until the ship was listing too heavily for many of them to be released.

Valerie Ananias, 31 years old, a schoolteacher from Los Angeles who was traveling with her sister and parents on the first of two cruises around the Mediterranean, said the experience was like a disaster movie.

“Have you seen ‘Titanic?’ That’s exactly what it was,” she said.

Carnival didn’t address the passengers’ allegations in a statement it issued. “Our hearts go out to everyone affected by the grounding of the Costa Concordia and especially the loved ones of those who lost their lives. They will remain in our thoughts and prayers in the wake of this tragic event.”

Coast Guard Cmdr. Francesco Paolillo said the first alarm went off about 10:30 p.m., about three hours after the Concordia had begun its voyage from the port of Civitavecchia, en route to its first port of call, Savona, in northwestern Italy.

The coast guard official, speaking from the port captain’s office in the Tuscan port of Livorno, said the vessel “hit an obstacle.”

The cruise liner’s captain, Cmdr. Paolillo said, then tried to steer his ship toward shallow waters, near Giglio’s small port, to make evacuation by lifeboat easier. But after the ship started listing badly, lifeboat evacuation was no longer feasible, Cmdr. Paolillo said.

Five helicopters, from the coast guard, navy and air force, took turns airlifting survivors and ferrying them to safely. A coast guard member was airlifted aboard the vessel to help people get aboard a small basket so they could be hoisted up to the helicopter, said Capt. Cosimo Nicastro, another Coast Guard official.

Costa Cruises said the Costa Concordia was sailing on a cruise across the Mediterranean Sea, starting from Civitavecchia with scheduled calls to Savona, Marseille, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Cagliari and Palermo.

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