- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2012

ROME (AP) — An Italian coast guard official vehemently demanded that the captain go back to his crippled cruise ship to oversee its evacuation, but the captain repeatedly resisted, according to a shocking audiotape made public Tuesday.

Prosecutors have accused Capt. Francesco Schettino of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his vessel before all passengers were evacuated during the grounding of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the Tuscan coast on Friday night.

After Capt. Schettino was interrogated by prosecutors for three hours Tuesday, a judge in Grosseto, Tuscany, ruled that the captain, who was detained a few hours after he allegedly abandoned the Concordia, should be released from jail and confined to his home near Naples under house arrest, his lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, told reporters outside the courthouse.

Prosecutors wanted him kept in Grosseto’s prison, and Mr. Leporatti had asked that he be freed.

The death toll from the accident nearly doubled to 11 on Tuesday when divers extracted the bodies of four men and one woman from the ship’s wreckage. The victims were in their 50s or 60s, and each wore the orange vest that passengers use, indicating they were apparently passengers and not crew members, said a coast guard spokesman, Cmdr. Filippo Marini. Their nationalities were not immediately determined.

Before that discovery, the coast guard had raised the number of missing to 25 passengers and four crew. Italian officials gave the breakdown as 14 Germans, six Italians, four French, two Americans, one Hungarian, one Indian and one Peruvian. But there was still confusion over the numbers, with the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin listing 12 Germans as confirmed missing.

The Costa Concordia was carrying more than 4,200 people when it hit a reef off the Tuscan island of Giglio after Capt. Schettino made an unauthorized deviation from the cruise ship’s programmed course, apparently as a favor to his chief waiter, who hailed from the island.

Capt. Schettino has insisted that he stayed aboard until the ship was evacuated. However, a recording of his conversation with Italian coast guard Capt. Gregorio De Falco indicates he fled before all passengers were off — and then resisted Capt. De Falco’s repeated orders to return.

“You go on board, and then you will tell me how many people there are. Is that clear?” Capt. De Falco shouted in the audiotape.

Capt. Schettino resisted, saying the ship was tipping and it was dark. At the time, he and his second-in-command were in a lifeboat, and the captain said he was coordinating the rescue from there. He also said he was not going back on board the ship “because the other lifeboat is stopped.” Passengers have said many lifeboats on the exposed port side of the ship didn’t winch down after the ship had capsized.

Capt. De Falco shouted back: “And so what? You want to go home, Schettino? It is dark and you want to go home? Get on that prow of the boat using the pilot ladder and tell me what can be done, how many people there are and what their needs are. Now!”

“You go aboard. It is an order. Don’t make any more excuses. You have declared ‘Abandon ship,’ now I am in charge,” Capt. De Falco shouted.

At one point, Capt. De Falco vowed: “I’m going to make sure you get in trouble. … I am going to make you pay for this. Go on board, [expletive]!”

Capt. Schettino finally was heard agreeing to reboard on the tape, but the coast guard has said he never went back. Coast guard officials had police arrest him on land.

The 52-year-old Capt. Schettino, described by the Italian media as a genial, tanned ship’s officer, has worked for 11 years for the ship’s owner and was made captain in 2006. He hails from Meta di Sorrento, in the Naples area, which produces many of Italy’s ferry and cruise boat captains. He attended the Nino Bixio merchant marine school near Sorrento.

Capt. Schettino recounted his version of events before prosecutors and a judge at a preliminary hearing Tuesday as to whether he should stay jailed, as requested by prosecutors. The judge deferred an immediate decision. The captain could face up to 12 years in prison on the abandoning ship charge alone.

Mr. Leporatti said in the hearing that the captain had insisted that, after the initial crash into the reefs, he had maneuvered the ship close to shore in a way that “saved hundreds if not thousands of lives.”

Passengers, however, described the evacuation as chaotic.

Steve and Kathy Ledtke of Fort Gratiot, Mich., said they were sitting down to a late dinner Friday when they realized something had gone wrong. Mrs. Ledtke told WDIV-TV that it seemed no one was in charge.

“It was complete chaos, and it was every man for himself,” Mrs. Ledtke said. “Nobody knew where to go.”

Earlier Tuesday, Italian naval divers exploded holes in the hull of the grounded cruise ship, trying to speed up the search for the missing while seas were still calm. Navy spokesman Alessandro Busonero told Sky TV 24 the holes would help divers enter the wreck more easily.

“We are rushing against time,” he said.

The divers set four microcharges above and below the surface of the water, Mr. Busonero said. Video showed one hole above the waterline less than 6 feet in diameter.

Mediterranean waters in the area were relatively calm Tuesday, with waves of just 1 foot, but they were expected to reach nearly 6 feet Wednesday, according to meteorological forecasts.

A Dutch shipwreck salvage firm, meanwhile, said it would take its engineers and divers two to four weeks to extract the 500,000 gallons of fuel aboard the ship. The safe removal of the fuel has become a priority second only to finding the missing, as the wreckage site lies in a maritime sanctuary for dolphins, porpoises and whales.

Preliminary phases of the fuel extraction could begin as early as Wednesday if approved by Italian officials, the company said.

Smit, the Rotterdam, Netherlands-based salvage company, said no fuel had leaked from any of the ship’s tanks and the tanks appeared intact. While there is a risk the ship could shift in larger waves, to date it has been relatively stable perched on top of rocks near Giglio’s port.

Smit’s operations manager, Kees van Essen, said the company was confident the fuel could be extracted safely using pumps and valves to vacuum the oil out to waiting tanks.

“But there are always environmental risks in these types of operations,” he told reporters.

The company said any discussion about the fate of the ship — whether it is removed in one piece or broken up — would be decided by Italian ship operator Costa Crociere and its insurance companies.

The Miami-based Carnival Corp., which owns the Italian operator, estimated that preliminary losses from having the Concordia out of operation at least through 2012 would be between $85 million and $95 million, along with other costs. The company’s share price slumped more than 16 percent Monday.

It was not yet clear if the ship, which was completed in 2006, ever would be able to return to service.

Carnival said its deductible on damage to the ship was approximately $30 million. In addition, the company faces a deductible of $10 million for third-party personal injury liability claims.

Carnival said other costs related to the grounding can’t be determined yet.

Colleen Barry reported from Milan, Italy.