Italian Cruise Ship Owner Cites 'Human Error'

Jan 16, 2012

The captain of the cruise ship that capsized off Tuscany made an unauthorized, unapproved deviation from the ship's programmed course, a "human error" that led to the grounding of the vessel, the chief executive of ship's Italian owner said Monday. At least six people died in the incident.

The comments from Costa Crociere Chairman and CEO Pier Luigi Foschi ramped up the pressure on the captain, who already is under investigation by authorities for suspected manslaughter and as well as allegations he abandoned ship before the passengers were safe, violating the Italian navigation code.

As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, investigators will be able to call on a wealth of documentation provided by passengers. Many made videos with their mobile phones as they waited to get off the damaged vessel.

A video they shot by Ronald Patricio Gonzales of Chile showed hundreds of passengers wearing life-vests crowded on a deck. The scene was one of confusion, with people shouting and looking terrified – and nobody telling them what to do.

"We were left to our own devices," said another passenger, Claudio Masia. He and his family members huddled on the keel and eventually went down a rope ladder. People on shore came in boats to rescue them, he said. "My mother, two children, my wife, and my nephew, but I can't find my father, I don't know where he is."

The Costa Concordia ran into a reef Friday night and capsized into the port area of Giglio, sparking a frantic evacuation of the 4,200 people onboard. Italian officials have said there are at least 16 people unaccounted for.

Coast Guard officials have expressed concern that the ship might slip off the rocks where it is currently perched.

Bad Weather Halts Rescue Operation

On Monday, the rescue operation was called off as weather worsened and a sixth body was found. Fire department spokesman Luca Cari said the ship had shifted a few centimeters vertically and horizontally because of rough seas. He said an underwater search for the missing people was suspended immediately.

Foschi, however, said it wasn't because the ship had shifted, but because divers heard "sounds" coming from inside and didn't know what was causing them.

He said the company, which is owned by the world's largest cruiseline, Carnival Corp., stood by the captain, Francesco Schettino, and would provide him with legal assistance. But he told reporters that the company disassociated itself from his behavior.

Costa ships have their routes programmed, and alarms go off when they deviate, the chief executive said in a press conference.

"This route was put in correctly. The fact that it left from this course is due solely to a maneuver by the commander that was unapproved, unauthorized and unknown to Costa," he said.

Schettino has insisted he didn't leave the liner early, telling Mediaset television that he had done everything he could to save lives.

"We were the last ones to leave the ship," he said.

Foschi said the liner had passed all safety and technical tests in its 2011 evaluation. He added that the company's main concern was the safety and well-being of the passengers and crew, as well as to ensure fuel doesn't leak out from the upended hull into the pristine waters off the island of Giglio.

Pollution Concerns

There were 500,000 gallons of fuel on board, in 17 separate tanks, Foschi said.

"There are no signs of pollution" to date, but officials are on high alert in case the ship suddenly shifts due to worsening weather conditions, Foschi said. Sensors have been put in place to track the movements of the ship.

Questions have been swirling about why the ship had navigated so close to the dangerous reefs and rocks that jut off Giglio's eastern coast, amid suspicions the captain may have ventured too close while carrying out a maneuver to entertain tourists on the island.

Residents of Giglio said they had never seen the Costa come so close to the dangerous "Le Scole" reef area.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reported from Rome for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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