A helicopter on Sunday airlifted a third survivor from the capsized hulk of a luxury cruise ship 36 hours after it ran aground off the Italian coast, as prosecutors said they were investigating the captain for manslaughter charges and accused him of abandoning his ship.
Authorities reduced to 17 from 40 the number of people still unaccounted for, with an Italian who worked in cabin service pulled from the wreckage of the Costa Concordia off the tiny Tuscan island of Grigio. A South Korean couple on their honeymoon were rescued late Saturday in the unsubmerged part of the liner when firefighters heard their screams.
Three people are confirmed dead after the huge cruise ship carrying more than 4,200 people ran aground on Friday night, forcing a chaotic and frightening evacuation. There are now six crew members and 11 passengers who haven’t been located, Tuscany’s regional president Enrico Rossi said.
Authorities were holding the captain, Francesco Schettino, for suspected manslaughter among other possible charges and a prosecutor on Sunday confirmed they are investigating allegations the captain abandoned the stricken liner before all the passengers had escaped.
Asked Sunday by Sky TG24 about the accusations, Grosseto prosecutor Francesco Verusio replied, “unfortunately, I must confirm that circumstance.”
A French couple who boarded the Concordia in Marseille, Ophelie Gondelle and David Du Pays of Marseille, told The Associated Press they saw the captain in a lifeboat, covered by a blanket, well before all the passengers were off the ship. They insisted on telling a reporter what they saw, so incensed that - according to them - the captain had abandoned the ship before everyone had been evacuated.
“The commander left before and was on the dock before everyone was off,” said Gondelle, 28, a French military officer.
“Normally the commander should leave at the end,” said Du Pays, a police officer who said he helped an injured passenger to a rescue boat. “I did what I could.”
According to the Italian navigation code, a captain who abandons a ship in danger can face up to 12 years in prison.
Schettino has said the ship hit rocks that weren’t marked on his nautical charts, and that he did all that he could to save lives.
“We were navigating approximately 300 meters (yards) from the rocks,” he told Mediaset television. “There shouldn’t have been such a rock.”
He insisted he didn’t leave the liner before all passengers were off, saying “we were the last ones to leave the ship.”
But that wasn’t the case. In addition to the three people recovered from on board by rescue crews Saturday night and Sunday, police divers and rescue crews on Sunday circled the wreckage searching for more of the 17 missing.
Crews in dinghies touched the hull with their hands, near the site of the 160-foot-long (50-meter-long) gash where water flooded in and caused the ship to fall on its side.
Coast guard officials have said divers would enter the belly of the ship in case anyone is still inside.
Coast guard spokesman Capt. Filippo Marini told Sky Italia TV that Coast Guard divers have recovered the so-called “black box” with the recording of the navigational details from a compartment now under water.
A Dutch firm has been called in to help extract the fuel from the Concordia’s tanks before any leaks into the area’s pristine waters, Rossi, the regional president, said. No leaks have so far been reported.
While ship owner Costa has insisted it was following the same route it takes every week between the Italian ports of Civitavecchia and Savona, residents on the island of Giglio said they had never seen the Costa come so close to the “Le Scole” reefs and rocks that jut out off Giglio’s eastern side.
“This was too close, too close,” said Italo Arienti, a 54-year-old sailor who has worked on the Maregigilo ferry service that runs between the island and the mainland for more than a decade. A now-retired Costa commander used to occasionally do “fly-bys” on the route, nearing a bit and sounding the siren in a special salute for his hometown, he said.
Such a fly-by was staged last August, but there was no incident, he said.
He said the cruise ship always stayed more than five to six nautical miles offshore, well beyond the reach of the “Le Scole” reefs, which are popular with scuba divers.
The terrifying escape from the luxury liner was straight out of a scene from “Titanic.” Many passengers complained the crew didn’t give them good directions on how to evacuate and once the emergency became clear, delayed lowering the lifeboats until the ship was listing too heavily for many to be released.
Several other passengers said crew members told passengers for 45 minutes that there was a simple “technical problem” that had caused the lights to go off.
Passengers said they had never participated in an evacuation drill, although one had been scheduled for Saturday. The cruise began on Jan. 7.
Costa Crociera SpA, which is owned by the U.S.-based cruise giant Carnival Corp., defended the actions of its crew and said it was cooperating with the investigation. Carnival Corp. issued a statement expressing sympathy that didn’t address the allegations of delayed evacuation.
France said two of the confirmed victims were Frenchmen; a Peruvian diplomat identified the third victim as Tomas Alberto Costilla Mendoza, 49, a crewman from Peru. Some 30 people were injured, at least two seriously.
Some 300 of the crew members were Filipinos and that three of them were injured, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said.
The captain has insisted that the reef was not marked, but locals said that the stretch of sea is not difficult to maneuver. Anello Fiorentino, captain of a ferry that runs between Giglio and the mainland, said he makes the crossing every day without encountering problems.
“Yes, if you get near the coast there are reefs, but this is a stretch of sea where all the ships can safely pass,” he said.
Islanders on Giglio opened up their homes and businesses to accommodate the sudden rush of survivors. Rossana Bafigi, who runs a newsstand, said she was really moved by the reaction of the passengers.
She showed a note left by one Italian family that said, “We want to repay you for the disturbance. Please call us, we took milk and biscuits for the children. Claudia.”
At Mass on Sunday morning in Giglio’s main church, which opened its doors to the evacuees Friday night, altar boys and girls brought up to the altar a life vest, a rope, a rescue helmet, a plastic tarp and some bread.
Don Lorenzo, the parish priest, told the faithful that he wanted to make this admittedly “different” offering to God as a memory of what had transpired.
He said each one carried powerful symbolic meaning for what happened on Friday night: the bread that multiplied to feed the survivors, the rope that pulled people to safety, the life vest and helmet that protected them, and the plastic tarp that kept cold bodies warm. “Our community, our island will never be the same,” he told the few dozen islanders gathered for Mass.