New audio reveals first contact between port officials and cruise captain

 

A new audiotape has emerged of the captain of the stricken cruise ship Costa Concordia insisting that the vessel only had a blackout for 30 minutes after it had rammed into a reef.

The tape is of the first contact between Livorno port officials and Capt Francesco Schettino.

The captain, who left the ship before everyone was safely evacuated, is under house arrest, facing possible charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his ship.

The Costa Concordia was carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew when it slammed into well-charted rocks off the Tuscan island of Giglio after Schettino made an unauthorised diversion Friday.

The ship then keeled over on its side.

Eleven people have been confirmed dead and 21 others are still missing.

The recording between Schettino and port officials began at 10:12 pm on Friday, a good 30 minutes after the ship violently hit a reef and panicked passengers had fled the dining room to get their lifejackets.

Recordings of Schettino's conversations with coast guard officials after the ship capsized on its side have shown how he resisted repeated orders to return on board to oversee the evacuation.

In today's newly released recording, the first communication between the ship and Livorno port authorities, Schettino is heard assuring the officer that he was checking out the reasons for the blackout. But he does not say that the ship had hit a reef.

Rather, the port officer tells Schettino that his agency had heard from a relative of one of the ship's sailors that "during dinner everything fell on their heads".

Passengers in the dining area reported plates and glasses slamming down onto diners.

"We are verifying the conditions on board," Schettino replies. Asked if passengers had been told to put on life jackets, he responds: "Correct."

Crew members and passengers alike have complained about the chaotic evacuation and the lack of direction from the ship's management.

Divers, meanwhile, restarted the search today for those still missing, but a forecast of rough seas added uncertainty to the operation and to plans to begin pumping fuel from the stranded vessel.

The divers were focusing on an evacuation route on the fourth level, now about 18 meters (60 ft) below the water's surface, where five bodies were found earlier this week.

Crews set off small explosions to blow holes into hard-to-reach areas for easier access by divers.

Officials restarted the search after determining the ship had stabilised after shifting on the rocks 24 hours earlier.

Also today, seven of the dead were identified by authorities: French passengers Jeanne Gannard, Pierre Gregoire, Francis Servil, 71, and Jean-Pierre Micheaud, 61; Peruvian crew member Thomas Alberto Costilla Mendoza; Spanish passenger Guillermo Gual, 68, and Italian passenger Giovanni Masia, who news reports said would have turned 86 next week and was buried in Sardinia today.

Italian authorities have identified 32 people who have either died or are missing: 12 Germans, seven Italians, six French, two Peruvians, two Americans and one person each from Hungary, India and Spain.

The ship's sudden movement on Wednesday had also postponed the start of the operation to extract the half-million gallons of fuel on board.

Italy's environment minister issued a fresh warning today about the implications if the ship shifts and breaks any of its now-intact oil tanks.

"We are very concerned" about the weather, said minister Corrado Clini. "If the tanks were to break, the fuel would block the sunlight from getting to the bottom of the sea, making a kind of film, and that would cause the death of the marine system in the area."

Crew members returning home have begun speaking out about the chaotic evacuation, saying the captain sounded the alarm too late and did not give orders or instructions about how to evacuate passengers. Eventually, crew members started lowering lifeboats on their own.

"They asked us to make announcements to say that it was electrical problems and that our technicians were working on it and to not panic," said French steward Thibault Francois. "I told myself this doesn't sound good."

He said the captain took too long to react and that eventually his boss told him to start escorting passengers to lifeboats. "No, there were no orders from the management," he said.

Among the missing are an Italian father and five-year-old daughter. The girl's mother issued a fresh appeal to speed the search and for passengers who saw the pair to come forward to help determine where they were last seen.

"Don't stop, bring home my daughter. Get her out," Susy Albertini, 28, said evening after meeting with government and port officials in Tuscany.

William Arlotti, 36, had taken his daughter on the cruise with his girlfriend, Michela Marconcelli, who survived. Marconcelli said she got separated from the other two in the evacuation.

The ship's operator, Crociere Costa SpA, has accused Schettino of causing the wreck by making the unapproved detour, and the captain has acknowledged carrying out what he called a "tourist navigation" that brought the ship closer to Giglio.

AP

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