The captain of the doomed Costa Concordia lost a precious hour in evacuating the giant cruise ship when it ran aground and capsized on January 13, possibly costing dozens of lives, a senior Italian maritime security official said on Thursday.
Captain Francesco Schettino is blamed for causing the accident by steering the vessel too close to shore and is accused of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship before the evacuation of more than 4,200 passengers and crew was complete.
At least 16 people died and another 16 are still missing after the 290-metre long ship struck a rock close to the Tuscan island of Giglio, tearing a gash in its hull which let water pour into the engine rooms.
Passengers have complained that the evacuation was chaotic and uncontrolled, with some left waiting in lifeboats for two hours before being able to leave the ship.
Several of the bodies were found by divers in submerged evacuation assembly points, wearing life vests.
If you consider that there were 4,200 people on board, you could say things went well, but if the captain hadn't wasted a precious hour, it would have been comfortable, Marco Brusco, head of the port captain's service, a maritime authority, told a Senate committee hearing.
The lifeboats could have been launched calmly, people could have been reassured. Instead of that, the first hour was lost, people were working under stress, he (Schettino) left and there were contradictory orders, he said.
Schettino is under house arrest near Naples. His lawyer has said he is ready to accept his share of responsibility for the accident but says that the ship's owner Costa Cruises was closely involved in the evacuation.
Italian media have speculated that the investigation into the case could be extended to include other Costa officials but there was no confirmation from state prosecutor Francesco Verusio, who inspected the site of the accident on Thursday.
At this point, there are no others under investigation, he told reporters.
Almost two weeks after the accident, officials have given up hope of finding anyone alive on the ship, which lies half-submerged in about 20 metres of water in a marine reserve.
Salvage crews are preparing to pump more than 2,300 tonnes of diesel from the Concordia's 17 fuel tanks with work expected to start by Saturday to prevent an environmental disaster.
Lawyers are preparing to launch damage claims against Costa, a unit of the world's largest cruise ship operator, Carnival Corp.
Consumer protection association Codacons has declared itself a civil party in the case and has invited passengers to join an international class action against the company, aiming to win at least 125,000 euros compensation for each passenger.
(Writing By James Mackenzie)