The captain of the Costa Concordia failed to tell the coastguard his ship was taking on water until 45 minutes after it hit rocks off the Italian island, it emerged yesterday.
Francesco Schettino (52) was so slow to raise the alarm that the first the emergency services knew of the unfolding tragedy was when passengers used their mobile phones to call the police.
Even when the coastguard radioed Capt Schettino to ask him what was going on, he insisted the ship had merely suffered an electrical fault and that there was no emergency. It was only at 10.30pm local time, an hour after the rocks had ripped a 160ft gash in the ship's hull, that the captain finally sent out a mayday call.
The crucial delay led to difficulties in deploying lifeboats on the port side, because by then the ship was listing heavily to starboard.
Prosecutors in Italy will now investigate whether Capt Schettino delayed evacuating the ship on Friday night because he did not want to admit culpability for sailing too close to the shore.
It is also alleged he defied an order from the coastguard to return to the ship to supervise the evacuation after climbing into a lifeboat while hundreds of people remained onboard.
The chairman of the Costa Crociere cruise company, Pier Luigi Foschi, laid the blame for the disaster squarely on the shoulders of Capt Schettino, saying he had made an "unapproved, unauthorised" deviation from the ship's agreed route.
He had allegedly steered the 114,500 ton vessel to within 150 yards of the shore as a favour to the ship's head waiter, Antonello Tievoli, whose family live on Giglio. Mr Tievoli's father Giuseppe said: "Antonello called and said that we should look out of the window at around 9.30pm because he would be on the ship and it would pass right by Giglio and we would see it.
"All the ships do it but they never come that close."
Antonello Tievoli was invited on to the bridge by the captain, who reportedly said: "Come and see, Antonello, we're right in front of Giglio."
But as Mr Tievoli watched the sail-by, known as a 'bow', he realised the captain was dangerously close to submerged rocks, and told him: "Watch out. We're very close to the shore."
His warning came too late, however, and shortly after 9.30pm local time passengers heard a "terrifying groan" as the 1,000ft-long ship was torn open and its cabins plunged into darkness by a power failure.
Rose Metcalf (23), from Wimborne in Dorset, said: "The sound was absolutely unbelievable. A groan is a very, very apt description. There was absolute panic. It was just terrifying, it was a case of just trying to keep people calm. People were white, people were crying, screaming."
Yet on the bridge, Capt Schettino was insisting there was nothing to worry about. He told the 4,200 passengers and crew there had been an electrical fault or problem with the generator, and sailed on as the ship started taking on water.
By 9.45pm, the ship was listing by seven degrees, and it was becoming clear to the passengers that something was badly wrong.
Some of them made mobile phone calls to relatives on shore, one of whom alerted their local police station in Tuscany, which in turn raised the alarm with the coastguard in Livorno. (© Daily Telegraph, London)