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Officer was warned of danger just before impact

Captain Francesco Schettino, under arrest on suspicion of multiple manslaughter and abandoning his ship, is reported to have summoned the ship's head waiter to the bridge just before it struck a reef, resulting in the deaths of up to 22 people.

Witnesses said Antonello Tievoli told the captain to be careful and warned him that he was "extremely close to the shore" of his native Giglio where the vessel has previously performed a spectacular sail-past with its horn blasting and lights blazing.

The ship's owners, Costa Cruises, blamed "human error" for Friday night's disaster involving 4,200 passengers, which is set to become the biggest insurance loss in maritime history.

Clarence Mitchell, who is representing Costa Cruises, confirmed that the captain had been approaching the island to "make a salute".

He said: "The company says this (incident) was caused by an attempt by the captain to show the ship to the port. But there's a criminal investigation and we're not going to say anything that's going to compromise that or the captain's case."

Prosecutor Francesco Verusio said the captain's actions were "inexcusable", describing the final tack as "unscrupulous and reckless".

A judge will decide today whether to charge the captain over the shipwreck.

Meanwhile, a sixth body was discovered as the search for a further 16 missing passengers continued into the night.

Italy is preparing to declare a state of emergency amid fears of a major environmental disaster caused by up to half a million gallons of heavy fuel oil leaking into the pristine waters of the dolphin sanctuary where the luxury liner struck a rock.

Rescuers were forced to temporarily abandon their hunt for survivors when the 114,500-tonne ship began sliding in heavy seas with the weather expected to worsen in the coming days.

Hopes of finding anyone alive are diminishing after firefighters concluded their investigation of cabins and areas above the water level.

Divers will now begin probing the submerged part of the multi-storey vessel.

Italy's Environment Minister Corrado Clini said the risk of an ecological disaster was now "very, very high". The Concordia had just left port with 2,300-tonnes of oil on board contained in 17 double hulled tanks.

"The aim is to prevent the fuel leaking out of the ship. We are working to avoid this. It is urgent and time is running out," Mr Clini said.

The International Maritime Organisation said lessons must be learnt from the wreck and that regulations on the safety of large passenger ships could now be reviewed pending the results of the Italian investigations.

Images of the overturned cruiser and horror stories of terrified passengers struggling to find lifeboats in the dark could have a serious impact on the £34bn (€41bn) cruising industry.

Shares in Carnival, the London and Miami-based owners of Costa, slumped yesterday.

Lost revenues as the ship is salvaged and refitted are expected to top £62m (€75m) this year alone, with one analyst suggesting the final cost to Carnival, which operates 101 vessels around the world, could be up to £652m (€789m) -- much of which will be shouldered by insurers with knock-on effects for policyholders.

The tragedy occurred during the traditional post-Christmas boost to bookings.

But the industry was at pains to point out that the 10-fold growth in passenger numbers since the 1970s was unlikely to be stemmed in the long term with three even bigger new ships due to be launched this year including the 130,000-tonne Carnival Breeze. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent