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Cruise liner’s captain claims he fell overboard

Search halted as vessel’s hull keeps shifting

digitalglobe via Associated Press

The suspended rescue effort delayed plans to begin extracting the half-million gallons of fuel and other potential pollutants.

GIGLIO, Italy - The saga of the stricken cruise liner Costa Concordia took further twists yesterday, with a warning from Italy’s environment minister that it could sink and news that the captain claimed he had slipped on deck and tumbled overboard to wind up in a lifeboat during the panicky passenger escape - and had not abandoned ship as accused.

The captain’s newly disclosed account of the Costa Concordia’s final moments afloat as it lurched heavily to starboard with a rip in the hull, reported by the newspaper La Repubblica, came as Italian divers were forced to suspend their rescue efforts in the gurgling underbelly of the half-submerged $450 million vessel because it had shifted on its rocky perch for the second time in three days.

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The instability, coupled with forecasts of stormy winds for this island off the Tuscany coast, raised fears the hull could slide into deeper water. Those fears were reinforced later by Italy’s environment minister, Corrado Clini, while addressing Parliament in Rome. “The ship is leaning on the right-hand side, on a rocky bottom and next to an escarpment that goes deep down to 50 to 90 meters,’’ he said, and there was a “real risk that coming sea storms could cause the ship to sink further.’’

The suspended rescue effort delayed plans by marine salvage workers to begin extracting the ship’s half-million gallons of fuel and other potential pollutants. Conflicting information about the total number of missing added to the frustration five days after the shipwreck, which could become one of the costliest disasters in the cruise line industry.

The Italian authorities revised the missing figure yesterday to 26, including a missing American retired couple, and identified one of the five waterlogged bodies found Tuesday as that of a 42-year-old Hungarian crew member. The official death toll still stood at 11.

The new explanation by the captain, Francesco Schettino, for why he vacated the vessel after he smashed into the rocks Friday night came as the Italian media have pilloried him as a negligent coward.

But his earlier account of hitting an uncharted obstruction received a credible boost. Lloyd’s List, a leading maritime publication, said yesterday that the ship had sailed close to the island in August, when it came within 230 meters of the coast - “slightly closer to the shore than where it subsequently hit rocks on Friday.’’

Schettino was quoted by the La Repubblica newspaper as telling investigators that he had not planned to leave the ship as it tilted toward the water.

“The passengers were pouring onto the decks, taking the lifeboats by assault,’’ he said, according to the newspaper. “I didn’t even have a life jacket because I had given it to one of the passengers. I was trying to get people to get into the boats in an orderly fashion. Suddenly, since the ship was at a 60 to 70 degree angle, I tripped and I ended up in one of the boats. That’s how I found myself there.’’

The drama has captivated Italy, offering the land a national metaphor at a time of political uncertainty and economic challenge, a juxtaposition of hero and antihero: Schettino, 51, accused of leaving the ship prematurely, and Captain Gregorio Maria De Falco, a coast guard officer who tried to cajole him into returning to the helm.

In an interview with a local newspaper here, Il Tirreno, De Falco was quoted as saying, “I am not a hero or an iron man. My team and I just did our duty.’’

Yesterday, Fillipo Marini, a coast guard spokesman, said sensors aboard the vessel recorded slight movements just after first light, forcing divers to delay plans to blast five more holes in the hull to open up new access routes into the vessel. Divers looking for bodies or survivors say it is too risky to enter the hull if there is a chance that the ship will shift further.

Schettino has been placed under house arrest at his home in Sorrento, about 250 miles south of the shipwreck site. Criminal charges including manslaughter and abandoning ship are expected to be filed by prosecutors in coming days.

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