Police arrest Italian captain of cruise ship that ran aground, killing 3

The Costa Concordia, owned by Genoa-based Costa Cruises, ran aground on a sand bank off the island of Giglio on Friday, January 13.

Porto Santo Stefano, Italy (CNN) — The Italian captain of the cruise ship that ran aground — killing three people, injuring 20 and leaving dozens unaccounted for — was arrested late Saturday and is being investigated for abandoning ship and manslaughter, said a local prosecutor in Grosetto, Italy.

Abandoning ship is the more serious of the potential charges, authorities said.

The captain, Francesco Schettino, had been earlier interviewed by investigators in Porto Santo Stefano about what happened when the 4,200-passenger Costa Concordia struck rocks in shallow water off Italy’s western coast, said officer Emilio Del Santo of the Coastal Authorities of Livorno.

Schettino said “that rock was not indicated on the chart,” according to Italy’s ANSA news agency.

“Me and the crew, we were the last to abandon ship,” ANSA quoted him as saying.

Authorities were looking at why the ship didn’t hail a mayday during the accident near the Italian island of Giglio on Friday night, officials said. The ship is owned by Genoa-based Costa Cruises.

“At the moment we can’t exclude that the ship had some kind of technical problem, and for this reason moved towards the coast in order to save the passengers, the crew and the ship. But they didn’t send a mayday. The ship got in contact with us once the evacuation procedures were already ongoing,” Del Santo said prior to the announcement of the arrest.

Giuseppe Orsina, a spokesman with the local civil protection agency, said 43 to 51 people were missing, though authorities are reviewing passenger lists to confirm the exact figure.

A surviving crew member, Rosalyn Rincon, 30, of Blackpool, England, said she wanted to know why the cruise ship was sailing so close to shore. She described a harrowing grounding of the vessel, whose tilting and rising water evoked the film “Titanic,” she said.

“I’m pretty much angry, and I want to know why we were so close to the coast,” said Rincon, who works as a dancer on the ship and was entertaining passengers by performing a trick inside a box with a magician when the accident occurred.

Nautilus International, a maritime employees trade union, called the accident a “wake-up call” to regulators.

“Nautilus is concerned about the rapid recent increases in the size of passenger ships — with the average tonnage doubling over the past decade,” said Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson in a statement. “Many ships are now effectively small towns at sea, and the sheer number of people onboard raises serious questions about evacuation.”

The ship was 2.5 miles off route when it struck a rocky sandbar, according to the Italian Coast Guard. Local fishermen say the island coast of Giglio is known for its rocky sea floor.

Gianni Onorato, president of Costa Cruises, expressed “deep sorrow for this terrible tragedy,” but said the cruise line was unable to answer all the questions that authorities are now investigating.

“On the basis of the initial evidence — still preliminary — Costa Concordia, under the command of Master Francesco Schettino, was sailing its regularly scheduled itinerary from Civitavecchia to Savona, Italy, when the ship struck a submerged rock,” Onorato said in a statement before the announcement of the captain’s announcement.

“Captain Schettino, who was on the bridge at the time, immediately understood the severity of the situation and performed a maneuver intended to protect both guests and crew, and initiated security procedures to prepare for an eventual ship evacuation,” he continued.

“Unfortunately, that operation was complicated by a sudden tilting of the ship that made disembarkation difficult,” Onorato said.

Some passengers fell into the chilly waters during the rescue, ANSA reported.

See high-res images of the rescue

The huge ship, which was lying on its side in shallow water Saturday evening, was carrying about 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew members when it ran aground around dinner time.

Initial reports suggested as many as six people had been killed, but it was unclear why the number dropped. About 1,500 of the people aboard the ship were on their way home Saturday, the Civil Protection Authority said.

Passengers described how the lights went out and it then became clear the ship had hit something, prompting scenes of chaos.

Fear and panic aboard crippled ship

Laurie Willits from Ontario, who was watching a magic show with her husband at that moment, told CNN: “We heard a scraping noise to the left of the ship and then my husband said ‘we’re sliding off our seats.'”

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