18 Gennaio 2012

Italy cruise wreck rescue halted, captain under house arrest

Italy cruise wreck rescue halted, captain under house arrest

GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy: The judge investigating Italy’s Costa Concordia disaster said on Wednesday the captain had shirked his responsibilities, as divers halted the search for survivors on the increasingly unstable wreck.

Judge Valeria Montesarchio released captain Francesco Schettino from police custody into house arrest despite noting he had made no “serious attempt” to rejoin the stricken vessel to take charge of evacuating the remaining passengers.

Rescuers were forced to suspend their search on Wednesday as the vessel shifted. Emergency workers fear that the ship could slip from its resting place on a rocky shelf and slide into 100-metre deep waters.

“Instruments indicated the ship had moved, we are in the process of evaluating if it has found a new resting point to allow us to resume. For the moment we cannot even go near it,” emergency services spokesman Luca Cari said.

A German woman listed among the missing is alive after returning home in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, an Italian official said Wednesday.

Gertrud Georgens has already gone back to her country, a local official in the Tuscan regional capital Grosseto told local media.

The body of a Hungarian musician who worked aboard the vessel was identified Wednesday as being among the remains of five people taken from the wreck on the day before, the last bodies recovered before the search was suspended.

Hungary’s Blikk newspaper said the musician, identified by authorities as Sandor Feher, had gone back on board the ship to retrieve his violin amid the chaos of the evacuation on Friday night.

Divers, mountain rescue teams and marines have recovered 11 bodies from the turbid waters of the half-submerged hulk in the days since Friday.

Another 20 passengers and crewmen are unaccounted for, their relatives huddled in hotels in the area anxiously waiting for news of their loved ones.

“We will not stop as long as we are certain that no-one is remaining aboard the ship,” coastguard spokesman Filippo Marini told AFP.

In his first comments on the disaster, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said during a visit to London: “Any such disaster could and should be avoided.”

He added that the Italian government was trying to limit any damage to the environment from the ship, lying on its side off the Tuscan island of Giglio.

The 114,500 tonne, 17-deck behemoth was insured for 395 million euros ($507 million), industry sources told AFP on Wednesday.

An insurance industry source who did not want to be named said it is already possible to speak of the Costa Concordia as “the biggest maritime disaster ever for the transport of passengers or goods.”

Schettino – described by one Italian newspaper as “the most hated man in Italy” — faces years in prison on charges of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship.

The fact that other crew and officers stayed on board to try to evacuate the passengers refuted the captain’s claim that he could not oversee the operation from the vessel, Italian media quoted the judge as saying after she questioned him at length on Tuesday.

She said Schettino had made no “serious attempt” to get back on board his ship, “or even close to it”, after leaving during the evacuation.

She also noted that once he had left the ship, he remained for hours on the rocks with crew members watching the rescue operation.

Explaining her ruling, she said she did not think Schettino posed a flight risk but she did believe he could try to conceal evidence, which is why he needed to be under house arrest.

Schettino arrived at his home in Meta di Sorrento near the southern city of Naples around 2:00 am (0100 GMT) accompanied by police officers.

Inhabitants of the village closed ranks around the sea captain. They lashed out at photographers and cameramen gathered outside Schettino’s home, accusing them of “media lynching” of the captain who “saved thousands of lives.”

Under Italian law he will not be allowed to leave his home or communicate with anyone apart from his lawyer and very close family.

He has defended himself, saying his manoeuvre between the ship hitting rocks and before it keeled on to its side saved lives. He said he left the ship to coordinate evacuation efforts from the shore.

But in a dramatic port authority recording of a telephone exchange as the disaster unfolded late on Friday, Schettino repeatedly told a port official who was urging him to get back on board the listing vessel that he could not get access, because another lifeboat was in the way.

“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 after his lengthy questioning on Tuesday.

“The captain specified that he did not abandon ship,” he said.

The Corriere della Sera daily reported that 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 listing vessel.

Leporatti backed the claim, telling journalists: “The ship in that moment was tilted over by 90 degrees.” He said the captain could not have returned on board without the help of a helicopter.

In the Livorno port authority recording, an increasingly strident port official berates Schettino, ordering him back on board so he could account for how many people were still on the vessel.

The official asks: “What are you doing? Are you abandoning the rescue?”

The dead identified so far include two French passengers, an Italian, a Spaniard and one Peruvian crew member.

Officials say up to 11 Germans, six Italians, four French, two Americans, one Indian and one Peruvian were still missing. Those figures includes four of the bodies recovered on Tuesday that have yet to be formally identified.

One of those unaccounted for is a five-year-old Italian girl, and local shops and bars have been putting up her picture in their windows in the hope that she managed to survive and was lost on the mainland.

About 4,200 people were on board when the ship went down shortly after it had left a port near Rome at the start of a seven-day Mediterranean cruise, and survivors have spoken of scenes of confusion and panic on board.

– AFP/ac/de

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