The captain of the Costa Concordia was distracted by guests he had invited to the bridge in the moments before his cruise liner rammed into rocks off the Tuscan island of Giglio, one of the ship's senior officers has claimed.
Silvia Coronica, the vessel's third officer, also told investigators that Francesco Schettino panicked in the aftermath of the crash, rushing "from one part of the bridge to the other".
The death toll from the disaster rose to 15 yesterday following the discovery of two more bodies, both believed to be women, from the submerged fourth deck of the ship.
Mr Schettino is under house arrest and faces charges of causing a shipwreck, abandoning ship and multiple counts of manslaughter after his 1,000ft vessel hit a rocky shoal which was clearly marked on nautical charts and even tourist maps.
It took him more than an hour to give the order to abandon ship, as passengers jostled for lifeboats or jumped into the sea. In the 10 minutes before the crash, Mr Schettino was seen chatting with one of the ship's pursers and its head waiter, who had been asked up to the bridge as the liner sailed past his home island.
A Moldovan dancer, Domnica Cemortan (25), was also reportedly seen sharing dinner and wine with the captain.
"The people who came up to the bridge with Mr Schettino were disturbing the ship's navigation," Ms Coronica told investigators. "The maitre d'hotel was chatting, disturbing the steering, with a consequent impact on concentration."
The ship was travelling at 15 knots as it sailed to within 150 yards of Giglio's coast -- too fast for such a delicate operation, the officer added.
The evidence given to judges also described scenes of panic in the engine room as water gushed in.
"I opened the door and I saw the tear in the hull and the water that was coming in. In the space of two minutes it was completely flooded," said Alberto Fiorito, the engine room's duty officer.
"I opened the door to the main electrical room but there was already nearly two metres of water."
Salvage workers were finally allowed to start extracting the half a million gallons of oil inside the ship, with the operation expected to start today. The liner is stable and there is no immediate risk of it becoming dislodged by sea swells and sliding to a greater depth, officials said.
Mr Gabrielli, the head of Italy's Civil Protection Authority, said the number of missing was as high as 24 or 25. One of the bodies found yesterday was believed to be that of Maria D'Introno, a 30-year-old Italian on her honeymoon. Her husband, Vincenzo Rosselli (40), helped his 74-year-old father to shore, only to realise his bride was missing.
Mr Schettino's lawyer said yesterday that a toxicology report showed the captain (52) had tested negative for drugs. Bruno Leporatti said that while his client accepted some responsibility for the crash, "third parties" were involved and the investigation should be widened.
Italian authorities are searching for the captain's personal computer, amid reports that it was taken away. Mr Schettino reportedly had time to retrieve the laptop from his cabin and bring it ashore, despite telling investigators last week that conditions were so chaotic he "tripped" and fell into a lifeboat.
He was being interviewed by Italian television when a woman apparently employed by Costa Cruises ordered him not to do any more interviews. When he spoke to police several hours later, the computer was no longer with him.
Costa Cruises denied that an employee obtained the laptop.
"After contacting the person involved, Costa Cruises categorically denies that it has received anything at all from Capt Schettino," it said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)