, Italy, Jan 18 – The captain of a doomed Italian cruise liner returned home to the Amalfi coast under house arrest on Wednesday, as fears grew that bad weather could hamper rescue efforts on the wreck.
Divers, mountain rescue teams and soldiers have so far recovered 11 bodies from the turbid waters of the half-submerged hulk and the surrounding sea.
Another 20 passengers and crewmen are unaccounted for, their relatives huddled in hotels in the area anxiously waiting for news of their loved ones.
Rescuers were again forced to suspend their search Wednesday as the vessel shifted. Emergency workers fear that the ship could slip from the rocky shelf on which it is resting and plunge into the open sea to sink entirely.
“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.
The Costa Concordia’s 52-year-old captain Francesco 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.
He has defended himself, saying his manoeuvre after the ship hit rocks and pitched onto 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 vessel that he could not get access.
Schettino arrived at his home in Meta di Sorrento near Naples around 2:00 am (0100 GMT) accompanied by police officers. He was released from prison on Tuesday after a judge ruled that he was not a flight risk.
Under lengthy questioning by prosecutors on Tuesday, Schettino defended his actions when disaster struck off Giglio Island along the Tuscan coast.
“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,” 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 tilting 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.
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.
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?”
Schettino, who was arrested along with his first officer, Ciro Ambrosio, on Saturday, has yet to be formally charged. Under Italian law, he could be charged up to a year after his detention.
The grilling of Schettino came as after the Italian navy used explosives to blow seven holes in the upturned hull of the Costa Concordia and another five bodies were discovered on Tuesday, bringing the death toll to 11.
“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.
Earlier, officials had said that 12 Germans, six Italians, four French, two Americans, one Hungarian, one Indian and one Peruvian were missing.
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.
The dead identified so far include two French passengers, an Italian, a Spaniard and one Peruvian crew member.
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.
Schettino has been widely criticised after reports emerged that he ordered an unauthorised sail-by close to the island, which was not on the cruise’s itinerary, to please a crew member who hails from Giglio.
“It was bravado, Schettino was showing off, clowning around, it was incredibly stupid. I would sentence him not once but 10 times,” said a former captain who worked with the ship’s owner, Costa Crociere.
Costa Crociere, Europe’s largest cruise operator, said earlier that the accident occurred as a result of an “inexplicable” error by the captain and distanced itself from the actions of their employee.
More than 70 Italian passengers have joined a class action suit against the owner, consumer rights association Codacons said Tuesday.
Fears meanwhile rose of an environmental disaster if the ship’s fuel tanks rupture and leak in the marine sanctuary and popular holiday spot.
Forecasts say a storm is expected to lash the rocky island on Thursday.
Dutch company Smit plans to begin salvage operations on Wednesday although it said the operation would take at least three weeks.