The hairdresser on board the doomed Costa Concordia was hailed a hero last night for saving hundreds of passengers, while his supposed superiors, including the disgraced skipper, fled the disaster.
Giovanni Di Mauro downed scissors and assumed the captain's role, being the last person to abandon the sinking liner at 5am on the Saturday after spending hours helping terrified passengers escape.
The giant ship crashed into rocks off the Italian island of Giglio at 9.42pm on Friday 13 January, before partially capsizing.
"I was there to help," Mr Di Mauro told investigators, "but at some point I thought I might die". An editorial in Rome's Il Messaggero newspaper said yesterday: "We should be asking ourselves if he wasn't the real hero of this story."
Leaked extracts from phone calls recorded by investigators a day after the disaster, show Francesco Schettino apparently confessing to a friend how he fled the disaster that he allegedly caused by sailing the 111,450-tonne liner within yards of the shore. "When I understood that the ship was listing, I upped and left," he is heard saying.
Mr Schettino, who has become the subject of a hate campaign, is under house arrest, accused of multiple manslaughter and of abandoning ship before his passengers.
The ship's chaplain Fr Raffaele Malena said he saw Mr Schettino "cry like a baby" for quarter of an hour after reaching dry land.
The captain has tried to justify his early escape from the vessel by claiming he stumbled into a life raft and was unable to get out. "Suddenly, since the ship was at a 60 to 70 degree angle, I tripped and I ended up in one of the boats. That's how I found myself there," he told investigators.
At least 16 people died and 22 are missing, Italy's Civil Protection Agency said. Six victims have not been identified.
Francesco Verusio, the prosecutor leading the criminal investigation, met Tuscany's chief prosecutor Beniamino Deidda yesterday to discuss the case – and the possible need to widen the inquiry to take account of the possible culpability of the vessel's operator, Costa Cruises.
Meanwhile, salvage crews are preparing to pump the 2,380 tonnes of polluting fuel from the ship.