The captain of the doomed Italian liner Costa Concordia said he was told by managers to take his ship close in to shore on the night it ran aground and capsized, according to bugged conversations leaked in Italian newspapers.
The daily La Repubblica published transcripts of a conversation Captain Francesco Schettino had with an unknown person identified only as Fabrizio in which he implicates an unnamed manager of the vessel's owners Costa Cruises.
Fabri ... anyone else in my place wouldn't have been so nice as to go there because they were breaking my balls, saying go there, go there, Schettino says in the conversation, taped while he was being held following his arrest over the incident.
...the rock was there but it didn't show up in the instruments I had and I went there ... to satisfy the manager, go there, go there, he says.
The conversation, in a thick Neapolitan dialect which the transcription translates into standard Italian, was apparently taped without the knowledge of Schettino, while he was being held in custody after the accident. It was posted on the website of the daily La Repubblica.
A source in the prosecutor's office said that the transcript was genuine. Schettino's lawyer Bruno Leporatti did not dispute it but said his client should not be treated as a scapegoat.
Schettino is currently under house arrest, blamed for causing the accident by steering too close to shore and accused of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship before the evacuation of more than 4,200 passengers and crew was complete.
At least sixteen people died when the cruise ship struck a rock which tore a hole in its side and caused it to capsize off the Tuscan island of Giglio on January 13. Another sixteen people are still unaccounted for. Six bodies are as yet unidentified.
Divers resumed their search on Wednesday and will blast new holes into the ship to open up submerged interior spaces. Salvage teams are also continuing preparations to pump more than 2,300 tonnes of diesel fuel from the hulk, an operation expected to start by Saturday and last about a month.
In the next couple of days we will be making preparations for the holes into those fuel tanks, at the front where the largest fuel tanks are positioned, said Martijn Schuttevaer, a spokesman for Dutch salvage company SMIT.
Following that we will be in a postion to start removing the fuel, he said.
I GOT OFF
Investigators say Schettino steered the 114,500 tonne vessel to within 150 metres of the shore to perform a manoeuvre known as a salute in which a ship makes a special display by coming in very close to land.
Whether or not such manoeuvres were tolerated or even encouraged by the ship's operators is one of the key questions at issue in the investigation.
In an interview last week, the company's chief executive said ships sometimes came close to shore but only under safe conditions. According to reports in the Italian media, the practice is widespread in the cruise industry.
In another potential threat to Costa, the daily Corriere della Sera reported that Giulia Bongiorno, one of Italy's best-known criminal lawyers, will represent around 30 passengers who are planning to file legal action against the company.
No comment was immediately available from Bongiorno, who represented Raffaele Sollecito, when he was acquitted last year on appeal with U.S. student Amanda Knox of murdering Briton Meredith Kercher.
The transcript published by La Repubblica also suggests that Schettino abandoned ship soon after realising that the vessel was listing dangerously, in remarks which appear to contrast with other versions of how he came to leave the ship.
During questioning by magistrates, Schettino said he fell into a lifeboat while investigating the state of the ship, which suffered an electrical blackout after it struck the rock. In the confusion, he had been unable to return to the ship.
During the conversation with Fabrizio, he appears to suggest that he took a conscious decision to abandon ship.
When I understood that the ship was listing I got on with it and got off, he is quoted as saying.
Costa Cruises, a unit of Carnival Corp, the world's largest cruise ship operator, has blamed the captain and suspended him.
Neither the company itself or individual executives, apart from Schettino and the ship's first officer, have been placed under investigation but Schettino's lawyer has said that the probe will be extended to other parties.
He has said Schettino is ready to accept his share of responsibility for the accident but he has says that he kept the company fully informed of events, including evacuation procedures, as they unfolded after the initial impact.
(Additional reporting by Cristian Corvino and Ilaria Polleschi in Grosseto; Writing By James Mackenzie; Editing by Giles Elgood)