Costa captain 'fled packed ship'
Hundreds of people were still on the sinking Costa Concordia liner when the captain fled the ship in a lifeboat, a court has been told.
Italian Coast Guard official Gregorio De Falco become a national hero after repeatedly ordering captain Francesco Schettino to return to the badly listing vessel.
Schettino is on trial for manslaughter, abandoning ship, and causing the 2012 shipwreck by sailing too close to the Tuscan island of Giglio. A reef gashed the hull, water rushed in and 32 people died.
The court in Grosseto, Tuscany, heard recorded phone conversations in which Schettino told Captain De Falco about 10 people were left aboard. Captain De Falco said hundreds were still there. Schettino never went back on the ship.
Captain De Falco told the court that the Concordia sent out its first distress signal 53 minutes after the collision on January 13. Until then, he said, the ship's officers kept "giving us reassurances about the situation on board," insisting that the Concordia had only suffered a power blackout.
But Captain De Falco, who was based in a port controlling the waters near Giglio, said he did not believe Schettino's reassurances.
He said a relative of a passenger told them passengers had been ordered to don life vests, and that furniture was falling around them as the cruise liner started listing badly to one side. A customs police boat, which had rushed to the scene, also told the Coast Guard the ship had capsized.
The court heard recorded phone conversations between Captain De Falco and Schettino, including a conversation that captivated the nation in which Captain De Falco repeatedly orders Schettino to get back aboard, at one point saying he is relieving the Concordia captain of his command. The call ends with an exasperated Captain De Falco's uttering an expletive after shouting at Schettino.
Also played in court was a recording of another conversation in which Schettino is aboard a lifeboat and mumbles that there are "at most about 10 people" still on the Concordia. But the Coast Guard had heard that as many as 300 of the 4,200 passengers and crew were still aboard, the court was told.
"Do you see people in the water?" Captain De Falco asks Schettino. "Yes, I scooped up some with my lifeboat," Schettino replies. He says there are still 10 people aboard, "but I cannot see all the ship."
Captain De Falco is also heard asking Schettino if there are women and children in the water and if some are jumping off the Concordia into the sea. He later tells Schettino: "You saved yourself, but I will make a lot of trouble for you."
Captain De Falco, dressed in his uniform for his court appearance, said he ordered rescuers to be lowered from a helicopter to pluck to safety dozens of people who were clinging to railings and other parts of the ship.
Many passengers and crew dived into the sea to try to escape when lifeboats could no longer be lowered because of the Concordia's tilt. Autopsies found that many of the victims who were not evacuated drowned aboard the ship, as water surged down corridors outside cabins and elevator shafts.
Schettino faces 20 years if convicted. He insists the reef was not on the ship's navigational charts and that he helped direct the evacuation after reaching land.