January, 18 2012 11:51:25

Italy captain denies abandoning ship as toll hits 11

GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy – The "most hated man in Italy," the captain of the doomed Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia, was put under house arrest for manslaughter as the death toll hit 11 with some 20 people still missing.

Francesco Schettino was placed under house arrest on Tuesday over the running aground of the enormous vessel off Giglio island in Tuscany, after which he allegedly abandoned ship before all the passengers and crew were saved.

A dramatic port authority recording of a telephone exchange as the disaster unfolded late Friday showed that captain Francesco Schettino ignored an order to return to the vessel after it hit rocks and pitched onto its side.

Schettino, 52, described by the daily Corriere della Serra as "the most hated man in Italy," is accused of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship before all the passengers were rescued.

Italian media said Schettino, jailed in the central Italian town of Grosseto by order of prosecutor Francesco Verusio who said he feared a "risk of flight," would be released from prison on Wednesday morning.

Police leaving the prison told journalists outside that the captain had already been freed, but this could not be officially confirmed.

Schettini denied Tuesday he had abandoned ship, as rescue divers found another five bodies in the wreckage, bringing the death toll to 11.

Under lengthy questioning by Italian prosecutors, Schettino said his actions as the boat was going down near Giglio had saved many lives.

"The captain defended his role on the direction of the ship after the collision, which in the captain's opinion saved hundreds if not thousands of lives," his lawyer Bruno Leporatti said. "The captain specified that he did not abandon ship."

The Corriere della Sera said Schettino told prosecutors that he was at the helm when disaster struck, but later fell into the sea and could not get back on board the tilting vessel.

Leporatti backed the claim, telling journalists: "The ship in that moment was tilted over by 90 degrees."

He also said the captain "carried out a brilliant manoeuvre" after the collision, and had "kept his wits about him," managing to steer the vessel towards the shore and "save a number of lives."

But according to investigators, the flooded engine rooms would have made it impossible for Schettino to navigate the 114,500-tonne ship, which drifted closer to a tiny port on Giglio before capsizing.

Schettino, who was arrested along with his first officer, Ciro Ambrosio, on Saturday, has yet to be formally charged, while a judge ruled Tuesday that he should be placed under house arrest, Leporatti said.

Chief prosecutor Verusio said he did not understand how Schettino could be released from jail as he was a flight risk and risked 15 years in prison.

The grilling of Schettino came as another five bodies were discovered after the Italian navy used explosives to blow seven holes in the upturned hull of the Costa Concordia, bringing the death toll to 11.

About two dozen people are still missing.

"The five victims are a woman and four men, who could be passengers but we are not sure, they are between 50 and 60 years old," said coastguard spokesman Filippo Marini. He said the victims were wearing life jackets. AFP

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