Ship captain tells Italian port: It's just a blackout

ROME — A new audiotape emerged Thursday of the first contact between Livorno port officials and the Costa Concordia — and the captain is heard insisting that his cruise ship only had a blackout a full 30 minutes after it had rammed into a reef.

Capt. Francesco Schettino, who was jailed after he left the ship before everyone was safely evacuated, is under house arrest, facing possible charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his ship.

The $450 million Costa Concordia was carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew when it slammed into well-marked rocks off the Tuscan island of Giglio after Schettino made an unauthorized diversion Friday from his programmed route. The ship then keeled over on its side.

Eleven people have been confirmed dead and 21 others are still missing.

The recording between Schettino and port officials began at 10:12 p.m. Friday, more than 30 minutes after the ship violently hit a reef and panicked passengers had fled the dining room to get their lifejackets.

Recordings of Schettino's conversations with coast guard officials after the ship crashed on its side have shown how he resisted repeated orders to return on board to oversee the evacuation.

In a new recording released Thursday, the first communication between the ship and Livorno port authorities, Schettino is heard assuring the officer that he was checking out the reasons for the blackout. But he doesn't volunteer that the ship had hit a reef.

Rather, the port officer tells Schettino that his agency had heard from a relative of one of ship's sailors that "during dinner everything fell on their heads." That was an apparent reference to the plates and glasses that slammed down onto passengers in the main dining room.

"We are verifying the conditions on board," Schettino replies. Asked if passengers had been told to put on life jackets, he responds: "Correct."

Crew members and passengers alike have complained about the chaotic evacuation and the lack of direction from the ship's management.

Divers, meanwhile, restarted the search Thursday for those still missing, but a forecast of rough seas added uncertainty to the operation and to plans to begin pumping fuel from the stranded vessel.

The divers were focusing on an evacuation route on the fourth level, now about 18 meters (60 feet) below the water's surface, where five bodies were found earlier this week, Navy spokesman Alessandro Busonero told Sky TG 24. Crews set off small explosions to blow holes into hard-to-reach areas for easier access by divers.

Officials restarted the search after determining the ship had stabilized after shifting on the rocks 24 hours earlier.

Also Thursday, seven of the dead were identified by authorities: French passengers Jeanne Gannard, Pierre Gregoire, Francis Servil, 71, and Jean-Pierre Micheaud, 61; Peruvian crew member Thomas Alberto Costilla Mendoza; Spanish passenger Guillermo Gual, 68, and Italian passenger Giovanni Masia, who news reports said would have turned 86 next week and was buried in Sardinia on Thursday.

Italian authorities have identified 32 people who have either died or are missing: 12 Germans, seven Italians, six French, two Peruvians, two Americans and one person each from Hungary, India and Spain.

The ship's sudden movement Wednesday had also postponed the start of the weekslong operation to extract the half-million gallons of fuel on board the vessel. Italy's environment minister issued a fresh warning Thursday about the implications if the ship shifts and breaks any of its now-intact oil tanks.

"We are very concerned" about the weather conditions, minister Corrado Clini told Mediaset television. "If the tanks were to break, the fuel would block the sunlight from getting to the bottom of the sea, making a kind of film, and that would cause the death of the marine system in the area."

Crew members returning home have begun speaking out about the chaotic evacuation, saying the captain sounded the alarm too late and didn't give orders or instructions about how to evacuate passengers. Eventually, crew members started lowering lifeboats on their own.

"They asked us to make announcements to say that it was electrical problems and that our technicians were working on it and to not panic," French steward Thibault Francois told France-2 television Thursday. "I told myself this doesn't sound good."

He said the captain took too long to react and that eventually his boss told him to start escorting passengers to lifeboats. "No, there were no orders from the management," he said.

Indian ship waiter Mukesh Kumar said "the emergency alarm was sounded very late," only after the ship "started tilting and water started seeping" in.

He was one of four Indians flown to New Delhi on Thursday, the first to return out of 203 Indians aboard the Concordia.

"The ship shook for a while, and then the crockery stated falling all over," said Indian Kandari Surjan Singh, who worked in the ship's galley. "People started panicking. Then the captain ordered that everything is under control and said it was a normal electric fault ... so people calmed down after that."

Authorities on Wednesday identified the first victim: Sandor Feher, a 38-year-old Hungarian musician working aboard, who a fellow musician said helped get crying children into lifejackets, then disappeared while trying to retrieve his beloved violin.

Among the missing are an Italian father and 5-year-old daughter. The girl's mother issued a fresh appeal to speed the search and for passengers who saw the pair to come forward to help determine where they were last seen.

"Don't stop, bring home my daughter. Get her out," Susy Albertini, 28, said on Italian television Wednesday evening after meeting with government and port officials in Tuscany.

William Arlotti, 36, had taken his daughter on on the cruise with his girlfriend, Michela Marconcelli, who survived. She reported seeing Dayana, who was wearing a lifejacket, slide into the water when the boat shifted, but said someone helped retrieve her. Marconcelli said she was pushed forward onto the life raft, and lost track of her companion and his daughter.

Other missing include retirees Jerry and Barbara Heil of White Bear Lake, Minnesota. The couple were treating themselves after putting four children through college.

The Heil children said in a blog post Wednesday that their parents were not among the passengers whose bodies were recently recovered.

The ship's operator, Crociere Costa SpA, has accused Schettino of causing the wreck by making the unapproved detour, and the captain has acknowledged carrying out what he called a "tourist navigation" that brought the ship closer to Giglio.

Costa is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp.

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