THE captain of the crippled Costa Concordia cruise ship, Francesco Schettino, has reportedly said the reason he was in a life boat while thousands of panic-stricken passengers and crew were trying to evacuate was because he "tripped" and fell into the rescue craft.
Mr Schettino told investigating magistrates in Grosseto, on the Italian mainland, that he ended up in the life boat by accident.
During three hours of interrogation on Tuesday, he reportedly said: “The passengers were pouring onto the decks, taking the lifeboats by assault. 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.”
He said he got stuck in the life boat for an hour before it was lowered into the water off the coast of Giglio island.
Also with him was Dimitri Christidis, the Greek second in command of the Concordia and Silvia Coronica, the third officer, according to La Repubblica newspaper.
“Suspended there, I was unable to lower the boat into the sea, because the space was blocked by other boats in the water.
The captain confirmed that he took the cruise liner close to Giglio’s rocky coast in order to give a ‘salute’ to an old colleague, a former Costa Cruises captain named Mario Palombo.
“It’s true that the salute was for Commodore Mario Palombo, with whom I was on the telephone. The route was decided as we left Civitavecchia but I made a mistake on the approach. I was navigating by sight because I knew the depths well and I had done this manoeuvre three or four times. But this time I ordered the turn too late and I ended up in water that was too shallow.
“I don’t know why it happened, I was a victim of my instincts.”
Once he had reached dry land and was allowed to leave the harbour master's office, Schettino's primary concern was to buy some socks.
Ottavio Brizzi, a taxi driver on the island of Giglio, said he picked him up at 11.30am on Saturday and took him the 400 yards to the Bahamas Hotel.
"It was a very short journey, no more than 30 seconds if that," he said. "He didn't say very much apart from asking me where he could buy some dry socks. He looked very cold and scared - he looked like a beaten dog."
Mr Schettino has been accused by one of the officers on board the Costa Concordia of skippering the ship "like a Ferrari" driver.
"If I had to make a comparison, we got the impression that he would drive a bus like a Ferrari," Martino Pellegrino told Italy's La Repubblica newspaper.
Salvage work was expected to begin on the ship later on Wednesday, as hopes faded that any more survivors would be rescued. The search was suspended early on Wednesday morning after the ship shifted on the rock. 24 people remain missing, while 11 people have so far been found dead.
Mr Pellegrino said Capt Schettino was an "authoritarian" who was often "inflexible" in the way he commanded the giant liner as it cruised the Mediterranean.
Mario Palombo, a former Costa commander and colleague of the captain, said: "I've always had my reservations about Schettino. It's true, he was my second in command, but he was too exuberant. A daredevil. More than once I had to put him in his place."
It was reported that a month ago the captain insisted on setting sail from Marseilles in 60 knot winds, despite the reservations of his officers.
But other colleagues came to his defence. Michele Miccio, another officer on the ship, said Capt Schettino had forged "a brilliant career" with Costa Cruises.
The captain's sister, Giulia Schettino, said he had been unfairly subjected to "mud-slinging" and said the accusations against him had not yet been proved.
"My brother will demonstrate that he had no responsibility for what happened," she said.
Italians have been transfixed by the release of dramatic audio tapes in which furious Coast Guard officials questioned why he was in a lifeboat rather than commanding the evacuation of 4,200 passengers and crew once it ran aground.
At one point a Coast Guard official, Gregorio De Falco, told him: "Get the ---- back on board." The phrase has been seized on by Italians on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites and has been printed on T-shirts.
Capt Schettino arrived at his home near Sorrento, south of Naples, in the early hours of Wednesday, having been released from prison and placed under house arrest by an investigating judge.
He had been held in custody in prison in Grosseto, in Tuscany, since being arrested on Saturday, hours after the giant cruise ship ran aground on Giglio.
A judge, Valeria Montesarchio, ruled that he should be allowed to remain under house arrest as he awaits trial on accusations of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship.
The 52-year-old captain denied the allegations through his lawyer.
"The captain defended his role on the direction of the ship after the collision, which in the captain's opinion saved hundreds if not thousands of lives," Bruno Leporatti said. "The captain specified that he did not abandon ship."