Costa Concordia Search Suspended, Captain Placed Under House Arrest

The captain of the doomed Costa Concordia cruise ship was placed under house arrest by an Italian judge yesterday, and will likely face charges of manslaughter and abandoning ship in the coming days. Meanwhile, divers searching the Costa Concordia for missing passengers and crew suspended their efforts indefinitely after the vessel shifted Wednesday on the rocks near Italy’s Tuscan coast.

So far, 11 bodies have been recovered since the Costa Concordia ran aground off the coast of the Italian island of Giglio last Friday night. Twenty-two people are still missing, and hope for those unaccounted for is running out. The Concordia struck a rock that tore a 160-foot hole in its hull, and caused the vessel to capsize. The cruise ship, which is owned by the Italian company Costa Crociera SpA, a subsidiary of Miami based Carnival Corp., was carrying 4,200 passengers and crew when the accident occurred.

The ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, was detained by Italian prosecutors on Saturday, amid reports that he had purposely taken the ship four miles off course in a “fly-by” of Giglio. Members of the Italian Coast Guard and passengers had also reported that Schettino had left the Concordia in a lifeboat long before all passengers and crew were evacuated. Questions have also been raised about Schettino’s possible failure to raise an SOS, with The Wall Street Journal reporting earlier this week that the Italian coast guard learned of the ship’s troubles after passengers phoned police to complain. The coast guard then contacted the ship’s command at about 10:15 p.m., more than a half-hour after the boat hit the rock formation.

Yesterday, the recording of a heated conversation between Schettino and an Italian Coast Guard Officer was released. In the tape, the obviously furious officer can be heard ordering Schettino – at this time safe in a life boat – back to the Concordia to oversee the evacuation, but the Concordia captain resisted, complaining that it was too dark and that the ship was listing.

“It is an order. Don’t make any more excuses. You have declared ‘Abandon ship.’ Now I am in charge,” the Coast Guard Officer shouts at Schettino, according to a translated transcript of the conversation.

At yesterday’s three hour hearing, Schettino admitted responsibility for crashing the ship into rocks, testifying that he “made a mistake on the approach.” He also acknowledged that he allowed the Concordia to come close to Giglio to salute a retired captain who lived there. Schettino was on the phone with the retired captain when the Concordia hit the rocks.

“I was navigating by sight because I knew the depths well and I had done this maneuver three or four times. But this time I ordered the turn too late and I ended up in water that was too shallow. I don’t know why it happened, I was a victim of my instincts,” he testified, according to a report from The Guardian.

Schettino, however, disputed accusations that he abandoned the stricken ship, claiming he fell into a lifeboat when the vessel listed violently. Up until that point, he claims he was directing the evacuation and assisting passengers, going so far as to give up his life jacket to a passenger.

Italian prosecutors are expected to file charges against Schettino in the coming days. He faces 12 years in prison on the charge of abandoning ship alone, according to an Associate Press report.

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