Extraordinary claims emerged last night that the captain of the Costa Concordia cruise liner, which foundered off the coast of Italy with more than 4,000 people on board, abandoned ship three-and-a-half hours before the last of his crew and passengers. The procurators' office in Grosseto said that the Concordia hit submerged rocks at 9.45pm on Friday, and the last of the ship's complement were not evacuated until 3am yesterday, but that Captain Francesco Schettino allegedly left at 11.30pm. He has now been detained for questioning over manslaughter, abandoning ship, and causing a shipwreck.
Survivors gave harrowing accounts yesterday of panic and confusion after the luxury cruise ship hit rocks off the island of Giglio, eight miles from the Italian mainland. They said that, with the ship listing so badly that a number of lifeboats could not be launched, some passengers and crew jumped into the sea, a few even swimming 300 metres to a nearby island. Others told of edging in the dark along corridors so tilted that they were crawling on walls rather than floors.
About 40 people are unaccounted for, and reports last night said that the mayor of Orbetello had been asked if the town hall could be used for storing bodies. But the situation was chaotic for many hours, and early today, two people of Asian origin, possibly crew, were located still on the ship. Survivors may also have dispersed once on land without taking part in a headcount.
This morning, divers will resume searching the wreck, now lying on its side in shallow waters off Giglio with a 50-metre gash in its hull. The dead include two French passengers and one Peruvian crew member. There were 37 Britons on board, but none among the dead or injured.
With the centenary of the Titanic sinking only three months away, several passengers said the scenes on board were reminiscent of that greater disaster. More than 1,500 died that night in 1912. Observers are still mystified that the Concordia, with its modern technology, could founder so swiftly.
It is not yet known if the accident was caused by human error, or by a power failure that disabled the ship's navigation systems. Captain Schettino reportedly blamed faulty charts for the accident. "We were navigating off the coast, along a tourist route, when the ship on a flank hit a rock not marked on the nautical chart," he told Tgcom 24 television. "In theory, that rock shouldn't have been there." Gianni Onorato, an executive with Costa, the ship's operator, said that Captain Schettino had the liner on its regular, weekly route when it struck a reef. "The ship was doing what it does 52 times a year, going along the route between Civitavecchia and Savona," he said.
The Procurator, Francesco Velusio, said the boat approached the island of Giglio very awkwardly. The boat hit a rock, which lodged in the port side of the boat, making it lean over and take on an enormous quantity of water in the course of just two or three minutes. Costa said it is not true that the boat was off course.
One crew member told TMnews: "We were too close to the coast. It was definitely a terrible human error. We took the usual route, but when you go along the coast you use manual steering, not the automatic steering. So it is up to the captain to choose how close you get to the coast and he tried to be too daring." The procurator confirmed he was looking into these claims.
Credible sources suggest the boat struck the rock some miles before Giglio. The boat carried on, while taking in water, with the crew thinking they could handle the leak. During this period the harbour master was alerted that the boat was shipping water. When it was clear the crew could not cope, the captain decided to change course and head for the shallower water around Giglio, where rescue would be easier. This seemingly saved the boat from the much worse fate of sinking altogether.
Captain Schettino's lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, said his client understands why he was being detained, but that "as his defender, I'd like to say that several hundred people owed their life to the expertise that the commander of the Costa Concordia showed during the emergency."
Questions are also being asked about the procedures on board. Passengers complained they were not given sufficient instructions on how to evacuate, and, once the emergency became clear, lifeboats were not lowered until the listing was too heavy for many to be released.
The ship was about three hours out of Civitavecchia when the accident happened. Christine Hammer from Bonn, Germany, said: "Suddenly, we heard a crash. Glasses and plates fell down and we went out of the dining room and we were told it wasn't anything dangerous." Several passengers said that, for a good 45 minutes, crew told passengers there was a "technical problem" which caused the lights to go off. Seasoned cruisers, however, were concerned, and went to get their life jackets from their cabins.
"We had to scream at the controllers to release the boats from the side," said Mike van Dijk, 54, from Pretoria, South Africa. "We were standing in the corridors and they weren't allowing us to get on to the boats. It was a scramble, an absolute scramble."
"Have you seen Titanic? That's exactly what it was like," said Valerie Ananias, 31, a teacher from Los Angeles travelling with her sister and parents. "We were crawling up a hallway, in the dark, with only the light from the life vest strobe flashing," her mother, Georgia Ananias, 61, said. "We could hear plates and dishes crashing, people slamming against walls."
She choked up as she recounted how an Argentine couple handed her their three-year-old daughter, unable to keep their balance as the ship lurched to the side. "He said: 'Take my baby,'" Mrs Ananias said, covering her mouth with her hand as she wept. "I grabbed the baby. But then I was being pushed down. I didn't want the baby to fall down the stairs. I gave the baby back. I couldn't hold her. I thought that was the end and I thought they should be with their baby."
The family said they were some of the last off the ship, forced to shimmy along a rope down the exposed side of the ship to a rescue vessel below.
Emily Lau, another passenger, said: "When we got to the deck, people were just utterly hysterical, mostly not because something was scary, but because there was no control. People were falling because the ship was actually sinking quite fast.
"The next thing we heard was 'abandon ship'. We had to embark on to our lifeboats, and people were rushing on to the lifeboats and there was no order of any sort. No one told us what to do."
Deodato Ordona, a cabin steward, said: "We announced a general emergency and took passengers to muster stations. But it was hard to launch the lifeboats, so they moved to the right side of the ship, and they could launch." Two Italian tourists, Ilaria, 23, from Rome, and Safa, 22, from Perugia, said: "Not all the boats went into the water. Some of them fell on the decks below and people were injured or bruised. Some people threw themselves into the sea."
After the ship started listing badly, lifeboat evacuation was no longer feasible. Five helicopters, from the coastguard, navy and air force, took turns airlifting survivors still aboard.
The rescued passengers went to Giglio, and thence to Porto Santo Stefano. About 1,000 Italians, 500 Germans and 160 French nationals were on board the ship, along with 1,000 crew members.
Additional reporting by Sophie Zeldin-O'Neill
'Small towns at sea': Sheer size of mega-ships sparks concern
Whatever an investigation finally finds, the Costa Concordia tragedy has highlighted concerns about coping with emergencies on the new generation of mega-ships carrying thousands of passengers.
Mark Dickinson, general secretary of Nautilus International, which represents 23,000 ship masters, officers, ratings and other staff, said his organisation is concerned about the "rapid recent increases in the size of passenger ships" - with the average tonnage doubling over the past decade. Mr Dickinson said: "Many ships are effectively small towns at sea, and the sheer number of people on board raises serious questions about evacuation."
He added: "Insurers and salvors have also spoken about the way in which the sheer size and scale of such ships presents massive challenges for emergency services, evacuation, rescue, and salvage - and we should not have to wait for a major disaster until these concerns are addressed."
Simon Calder, The Independent's travel specialist, said last night: "Carnival's [Costa's parent company] immediate task, of course, is to care for passengers, crew and bereaved families. The International Maritime Organization will assess whether the safety regime on such floating fun palaces needs to be strengthened. But its owners must also address some difficult [business] questions. How will images of the stricken ship affect customer confidence? And can the 100 per cent occupancy, on which the cruise business relies, be sustained?"
A survivor's story: 'It was chaos. People started pushing hard'
One of the most dramatic accounts of the sinking came from Nathan Lukes, a dentist from Alaska, on board with his wife and four daughters:
"We got on the ship at about 5pm and went to bed that night, but woke up at around 11.30pm to the alarm going off. We woke the children and realised the boat was listing and leaning to the side. There were crew members in the hall telling us to stay where we were and after about 15 minutes I said I'd feel better if we got to the deck.
"We finally found a door that was ajar and got outside. There were a quite a few people already on deck and it became a pushing situation. No one knew if we were going to get on the lifeboats.
"Then we heard an alarm and they told us to abandon ship. It was chaos. People started really pushing hard and trying to elbow us out of the way. There was kind of a mob moving towards the boats.
"A few of the crew who were still there were saying 'go to the other side' but that didn't seem to be a good idea because the ship was tipping even more. So we went around to the stern and some of the crew there launched another boat and threw down a Jacob's ladder.
"We had to climb down 70 to 100 feet to get into the rubber boat. I had my daughter, who is just six, cradled in my arms in front of me to keep her safe.
"We spent about five or six hours bobbing around in the water. It was very scary."