The captain of the Costa Concordia was repeatedly ordered back on to his stricken ship by coastguard officials after they discovered he was in a lifeboat rather than commanding the evacuation of more than 4,000 passengers and crew.
In an extraordinary exchange with the Italian port authorities, Francesco Schettino was accused of abandoning hundreds of passengers still trapped on the listing cruise ship and of refusing a direct order to get back on board to help with the rescue effort.
A senior coastguard officer was aghast when Captain Schettino (52) told him that he was trying to coordinate the operation from the safety of a lifeboat, while apparently being unaware that some of his passengers had lost their lives in the disaster.
"What do you want? To go back home, Schettino?" the furious official yelled, after the captain complained that he couldn't see anything because it was "dark".
A transcript of the exchange, between the Concordia's captain and Gregorio De Falco, a captain with the Livorno port authorities, was released yesterday as Captain Schettino appeared before prosecutors and a judge at a preliminary hearing on whether he should be kept in custody.
He is accused of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his ship before all passengers were evacuated, after apparently sailing too close to the island of Giglio to come within sight of his head waiter's family home.
Francesco Verusio, the prosecutor who is leading the investigation, has called the captain's behaviour "inexcusable".
Captain Schettino's lawyer Bruno Leporatti said his client's actions had saved "hundreds if not thousands of lives" and insisted he had not abandoned his ship.
The audio recording of his increasingly frantic exchange with Captain De Falco, however, appeared to show that Captain Schettino had fled the listing vessel while hundreds of passengers were trapped on board.
The tape revealed Captain De Falco's mounting anger as he struggled to get the captain back on board his sinking ship. The exchange came at around 1.46am on Saturday, around four hours after the initial collision between the Costa Concordia and an underwater rock formation just a few hundred yards off the coast of Giglio.
The collision caused Captain Schettino to attempt to steer the ship back into the island's port, but it capsized on to a rocky shelf as it reached shallow water. The evacuation of the vessel eventually began at around 11.50pm and would not be complete until about 4.45am, but at the time of the recording Captain Schettino had apparently already left the cruise ship and was in a lifeboat heading for safety. The exchanges were remarkable:
CG: "Get on board the ship and coordinate the rescue on board. Are you refusing?"
FS: "No, I am not refusing."
CG: "Are you refusing to go on board? Tell me the reason why you are not going."
FS: "I am not going because there is another lifeboat that has stopped."
CG: "You get on board. This is an order. You need to continue the rescue. You called the evacuation, now I am in charge. You need to go on board the ship, is that clear?"
CG: "Can you hear me?"
FS: "I am going."
CG: "Go. Call me when you are on board. My air rescue team is there. He is at the bow. Get going. There are already corpses Schettino. Move!"
FS: "How many dead are there?"
CG: "I don't know. One I am aware of. You need to be telling me this. Christ!"
FS: "But you are aware it is dark and we can't see anything?"
CG: "And what do you want? To go back home, Schettino? Get on the bow of the ship and tell me what can be done, how many people there are and what do they need. Now!"
FS: "I am here with the second commander."
CG: "Excuse me?"
FS: "I am here with the second commander, his name is..."
CG: "So both of you, get on board, both of you. What is the name of the second?"
CG: "Dimitry who?"
FS: "Dimitry..." (Unclear)
CG: "You and your second commander, go and get on board now. Is that clear?"
FS: "I want to get on board the ship but the other lifeboat has stopped its engine and it is drifting and I called other rescuers."
CG: "It's already one hour you are telling me this. Now, get on board. Get on board! And you tell me how many people there are."
FS: "Okay, Captain."
CG: "Go, right now!"
The exchange between Captain Schettino and Captain de Falco continued but Captain Schettino did not return to the ship. (© Daily Telegraph, London)