THE captain of the stricken cruise liner, Costa Concordia, was accused last night of deliberately steering the ship "too close" to a rocky shore in order to send a greeting signal to someone on the Italian island of Giglio.
Italian prosecutors claim Captain Francesco Schettino (52) had approached the island's coastline in a "carelessly clumsy manner" in the moments before a catastrophic collision with an underwater rock formation that caused the ship to list violently and eventually capsize.
The owners of the Costa Concordia cruise ship, Costa Cruises, said in a statement posted on their website last night that preliminary indications suggested "significant human error" by the captain may have been to blame for the ship running aground.
The route the vessel sailed appeared to have been "too close to the shore" and Mr Schettino's judgment in handling the emergency appeared "to have not followed standard Costa procedures", the statement added.
The death toll from Friday night's disaster, one of the worst in the cruise industry's recent history, rose to five last night after rescuers discovered the bodies of two elderly men wearing life vests inside the vessel. A further 15 people remained missing.
Prosecutors believe Mr Schettino had been intending to perform the nautical equivalent of a fly-by past the island's main port when the accident happened. It had apparently become a long-standing practice for the Costa Concordia to sail close to the island in order to greet its inhabitants with a siren from the ship.
The tradition appears to have begun when the wife of a former senior officer lived on the island and he would take the ship close to Giglio to greet her. There were reports last night that the vessel's current officers had a friend ashore, from the Italian merchant navy, that they wanted to salute in a similar manner.
As the ship approached the port from the south, it sailed too close to the coastline and struck a rocky reef, known to locals as 'Le Scole', a few hundred yards out. Islanders said they had never seen the ship try to pass so close before. Ships usually pass by up to five miles away.
A 160ft gash was torn in the pounds ¿447m ship's hull, causing it to take on large quantities of water in minutes and list violently. The 4,200 passengers and crew were told to abandon ship.
Franco Verusio, the procurator of Grosseto, who is leading the investigation, said: "Schettino approached the island of Giglio in a carelessly clumsy manner.
The ship hit a reef which embedded itself in the left flank, the ship listed and took on lots of water in the space of two or three minutes. Captain Schettino was in command at that point.
"He was the one who ordered that course to be taken, at least according to what we have discovered. There was someone in particular that wanted to be signalled from the ship."
Mr Schettino, who is being questioned on suspicion of multiple manslaughter, claimed yesterday that the reef had not appeared on the nautical charts and had not been picked up by the ship's navigation systems. "We should have had deep water beneath us," he said. "We were about 300 metres [1,000ft] from the rocks more or less."
Prosecutors also accused Mr Schettino of abandoning his ship "well before" the last of his passengers, a criminal offence which can carry a sentence of up to 12 years in jail. The captain denied this, insisting he was the last to leave.
The Concordia capsized after the captain tried to turn round and head into the island's port in an apparent attempt to make it easier to evacuate.