The Italian cruise liner captain accused of abandoning his stricken vessel with hundreds of passengers still trapped onboard has claimed he left the ship only because he "tripped" and fell into a lifeboat while trying to help with the evacuation.
Francesco Schettino (52) told investigating magistrates that the Costa Concordia was listing so violently there was nothing he could do to get back on board once he had tumbled off and into the safety of a rescue craft.
He admitted however, that he had made a "mistake" as he approached the island of Giglio to perform a "salute" for a friend, turning too late and ending up in shallow water.
An off-duty captain who stepped in to help co-ordinate the evacuation spoke out yesterday to condemn Mr Schettino's actions, describing the disaster as "a heartache that I will carry with me forever".
Colleagues, meanwhile, accused the beleaguered captain of treating the 1,000ft long vessel "like a Ferrari" and said he was an over-exuberant "daredevil".
Mr Schettino, who was being kept under house arrest near Naples yesterday, was interrogated for three hours on Tuesday about the disaster which has claimed at least 11 lives, with 22 people still missing.
Pressed by magistrates on why he had apparently abandoned the ship, he reportedly said: "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 lifeboat for an hour before it was lowered into the water off the coast of Giglio island.
A short time afterwards he was seen ashore, leaving an estimated 300 crew and passengers, including children and elderly and disabled people, to fend for themselves. Also with him in the lifeboat was Dimitri Christidis, the Greek second-in-command of the Concordia and Silvia Coronica, the third officer, according to reports.
Mr Schettino told investigators he took the cruise liner to within 0.28 nautical miles of Giglio to perform a "salute" to a former Costa Cruises captain.
" ... 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."
The judge said the Mr Schettino had not made "any serious attempt" to return to the vessel "or even close to it" after evacuating.
Roberto Bosio (44), the captain of one of the Concordia's sister ships, the Serena, said: "Only a disgraceful man would have left all those passengers on board. It was the most horrible experience of my life, a tragedy, a heartache that I will carry with me forever."
He added: "I just want to rest and forget. Don't call me a hero. I just did my duty, the duty of a sea captain -- actually the duty of a normal man."
Martino Pellegrino, one of the officers on board, joined the growing condemnation of Mr Schettino. "If I had to make a comparison, we got the impression that he would drive a bus like a Ferrari," he said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)