The Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster has served up the final ingredients needed for a true scandal; a pretty young woman allegedly seen with the ship's captain shortly before the crash.
Claims that a "mystery woman" – swiftly identified as Domnica Cemortan, a 25-year-old dancer from Moldova – was on the bridge of the ship with its disgraced captain, Francesco Schettino, have unleashed a torrent of questions and accusations. They also gave investigators a new lead amid suggestions the ship's commander had been drinking before the accident.
Reports said the presence of the young woman on the bridge may have provided another distraction for the show-boating skipper, who it appears was already intent on making a risky "sail-by", at the pretty Tuscan island of Giglio, that ended in tragedy.
Captain Schettino is under house arrest, accused of multiple manslaughter and of abandoning ship before his passengers. Police and prosecutors said they were keen to talk to the dancer over suggestions she was on the bridge with the captain at the time of impact.
Italian newspapers and British tabloids despatched reporters to Moldova in search of the femme fatale. But she surfaced yesterday in an interview with a Romanian newspaper Adevarul, in which she confirmed she had been on the bridge with Mr Schettino. But she said that at the moment of the vessel's impact with rocks, she was at dinner. She was then called on to the bridge to translate into Russian information that officers wanted to relay to passengers.
Ms Cemortan defended Mr Schettino, saying his actions after the crash had saved thousands of people. She added that he was "very skillful and experienced when it comes to manoeuvring the ship in enclosed spaces".
Costa Costiere, the Concordia's owners, denied reports that Ms Cemortan, who has worked for the company, had not been correctly registered as a passenger. A witness quoted in another Italian newspaper said he had seen Mr Schettino "drink several glasses of wine" with a companion and an officer, while all three dined at the ship's ritzy Club Concordia restaurant at 9.05pm on Friday, about 35 minutes before the ship's impact with the rocks.
In the Il Secolo XIX newspaper, Angelo Fabbri, a passenger from Savona, said Captain Schettino had "just finished his first glass, and the waiter was about to pour the last drop from the decanter in rather high spirits".
Mr Schettino, 52, dressed in a dinner suit, was sitting in front of a young woman, whom the witness thought "might have been his daughter". They appeared to be enjoying themselves and there "was no doubt they drank the whole decanter and that the last drop went to the captain".
The seaman, who is married with a daughter, had denied drinking on the night of the disaster and told police following his detention that he was willing to undergo drug tests. The Grosseto prosecutor Francesco Verusio said the toxicological tests were "still ongoing".
Meanwhile, an audiotape emerged yesterday of the first contact between Livorno port officials and the Costa Concordia, in which the bridge is heard insisting that the cruise ship is suffering only an electrical blackout – 30 minutes after it had rammed into a reef.
In the communication, an unidentified officer is heard assuring the port official that he was checking out the reasons for the blackout. He doesn't reveal that the ship has hit a reef.
However, the port officer tells the ship that his agency had heard from a relative of one of ship's sailors that "during dinner everything fell on their heads."
"We are verifying the conditions on board," the officer replies. Asked if passengers had been told to put on life jackets, he responds: "Correct."
Costa Crociere has accused Mr 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.
Mr Schettino's lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, said his client was "overcome and wants to express his greatest condolences to the victims".
Time runs short in search for final survivors
The determination of rescuers to find more survivors aboard the Costa Concordia seemed last night to be coming increasingly into conflict with plans to salvage the stricken ship's 2,400 tonnes of fuel to avert an environmental disaster.
Contradictory statements from emergency workers about how much time divers had left to scour the ship for missing passengers or, more likely, their bodies came as two of the five dead found earlier this week were named as Pierre Gregoire and Jeanne Gannard, both French nationals.
So far, 11 passengers have been declared dead and hopes of finding any of the 21 missing people alive are fading. But rescue divers said they were determined to keep searching the flooded vessel after the sea became calmer yesterday.
The pressure to continue was heightened when an Italian mother, Susy Albertini, made an anguished plea on national television for emergency workers to keep searching for her five-year-old daughter Dyana, who is missing with her father, William Arlotti.
Diving experts also warned that the salvage operation, which was being stepped up in Giglio Port yesterday, might impede their activities. Danilo Del Carro, marshal of the coast guard divers' division, who helped to retrieve five bodies on Tuesday, said: "Depending on the weather, I think we've got two more days. The salvage firm is getting stuff in place already. But when the floating equipment is out there it will get in the way of what we do."
However, Filippo Marini, the chief of the Italian coast guard, said: "The absolute priority is finding the people aboard the vessel. The salvage work can proceed if it allows the rescue work to continue in absolute security for the divers."
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