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Carnival questions captain's judgment as death toll rises

Posted: January 17, 2012 - 1:04am

The captain of a Carnival Corp. cruise liner ordered the ship off its programmed route, an “error” that caused it to hit rocks off Italy’s coast in an accident that killed at least six people, the chairman of the cruise ship’s operator said Monday.

The Costa Concordia’s route was set electronically before it left Civitavecchia near Rome, carrying more than 4,000 passengers and crew, on Jan. 13 and the ship shouldn’t have been so close to the Giglio island where it struck rocks, ripping a hole through its hull, Costa Crociere Chairman Pier Luigi Foschi said at a press conference in Genoa. The Italian company is controlled by Carnival.

“We can’t deny that there was a human error,” he said. “The route had been properly programmed in Civitavecchia. The fact that the ship strayed from that course can only be due to a maneuver that was not approved, not authorized nor communicated to Costa Crociere by the captain of the ship.” Captain Francesco Schettino, who is in custody amid a criminal probe, may have steered the boat closer to Giglio to give passengers a better view of the Tuscan island, Foschi said.

Foschi, whose voice cracked with emotion and eyes welled with tears in the first of two press conferences, defended the performance of the crew during the two-hour emergency evacuation of passengers. The company’s priorities are completing the rescue operation and removing more than 500,000 gallons of fuel before trying to salvage the ship, he said.

The rescue operation was halted for about four hours Monday because of the ship’s movement in shallow waters near Giglio, Italy’s Civil Protection Agency said. Search efforts resumed about 4 p.m. local time. About 16 people were still missing. The ship’s insurers may face total costs of about 405 million euros ($512 million), said one person with knowledge of the policies.

The Costa is resting on its starboard side, a portion of the ship underwater and its orange smokestack close to the waterline. The ship was built in 2006 and has 1,500 cabins, according to Costa Crociere’s website.

The Italian government plans to declare a state of emergency in the region, news wire Ansa reported, citing Environment Minister Corrado Clini. Small fuel leaks have been reported in the area around the ship, though the material probably will evaporate, Ansa said, without citing anyone.

Carnival shares fell as much as 23 percent in London trading Monday, the biggest decline in 10 years. The U.S. stock market is closed for a holiday.

“In terms of physical damage, this will be one of the biggest claims around,” said Eamonn Flanagan, an insurance analyst at Shore Capital Group in Liverpool, England.

A sixth body was found on the ship Monday, said Stefano Giannelli, a fire department spokesman. Rescue teams found two South Korean passengers alive in a ship cabin at 3 a.m. local time Sunday and saved a crewmember on the third deck, Giannelli said.

Several survivors described scenes of panic when the ship began listing, with some likening the events to the film “Titanic.”

Schettino, who was on the ship’s bridge at the time of the incident, was arrested for allegedly abandoning the ship “since we know he was in the harbor about midnight,” Francesco Verusio, the chief prosecutor in the city of Grosseto, said in an interview Sunday. The ship’s first officer is also being probed, he said. Dozens of people have been questioned so far in the investigation, the prosecutor said.

Costa’s Foschi said the rocks which caused the vessel to run aground, were correctly marked on navigation maps, though the captain may have been using a less detailed version. The ship may have been only about 492 feet from the coast when the accident occurred, Foschi said.

Some witnesses reported that the captain remained onboard for a long time, and it was difficult to determine if Schettino abandoned the vessel, he said. The only time Foschi was aware that one of his company’s cruise ships was authorized to sail close to the island was Aug. 9-10, 2011. In that case, the distance from the island wasn’t less than 500 meters.

“Ships have never come this close to the island,” said Michele Cavero, a 67-year-old retired head of operations for oil tankers. “They have always kept themselves further away.”

Gianni Onorato, general manager of the Costa Crociere line, said the ship had embarked about 7 p.m. from Civitavecchia near Rome on a trip that was scheduled to include stops at ports in France and Spain. When the vessel hit the rocks, Schettino, after assessing the damage, decided to secure the ship and gave the evacuation order, Onorato said.

The U.S. Embassy in Italy said two of the 120 U.S. passengers are still unaccounted for, according to a statement posted on Twitter.

Carnival, based in Miami, is the world’s largest cruise line owner, with brands such as Cunard, Princess Cruises and Costa. Its shares trade in London and New York.

The so-called black box that carries crucial information about the ship’s movements has been retrieved, Verusio said. Captain Schettino said he was the last one to leave the ship, according to an interview broadcast by TGCOM24 before his arrest. The rocks weren’t identified on the navigation maps, Schettino said. The ship was at least 300 meters from the island when it hit the rocks, he said.

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