Woman with ship captain defends his actions

Associated Press
People view the cruise ship Costa Concordia as it lays on its side after running aground off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012.  Divers have resumed the search for 21 people still missing after a cruise ship capsized off the Tuscan coast. The $450 million Costa Concordia cruise ship was carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew when it slammed into a reef Friday, Jan.16, after the captain made an unauthorized maneuver. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
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ROME (AP) — A young Moldovan woman who translated evacuation instructions from the bridge after the Costa Concordia ran into a reef emerged as a potential new witness Thursday in the investigation into the captain's actions on that fateful night.

Italian media have said prosecutors want to interview 25-year-old Dominica Cermotan, who had worked for Costa as a hostess fluent in several languages but was not on duty when she boarded the ship Jan. 13 in the Italian port of Civitavecchia.

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 on Jan. 13 after the captain made an unauthorized diversion from his programmed route. The ship then keeled over on its side and is still half-submerged nearly a week later.

In interviews with Moldovan media and on her own Facebook page, Cermotan said she was called up to the bridge of the Concordia after it struck the reef to translate evacuation instructions for Russian passengers. She defended Capt. Francesco Schettino, who has been vilified in the Italian media for leaving his ship before everyone was evacuated safely.

"He did a great thing, he saved over 3,000 lives," she told Moldova's Jurnal TV.

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

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

Divers searched for the missing Thursday after a day-long break and a new audiotape emerged of the Concordia's first communication with port officials who inquired about what was wrong. In the tape, an officer insists the ship had only experienced an electrical blackout — comments that came a full 30 minutes after the ship had rammed violently into the reef.

Italian media reported the officer on the call was Schettino, but that could not be independently confirmed.

Cermotan said on her Facebook page that she wasn't on duty the night of the grounding but was with Schettino, other officers and the cruise director on the bridge. She said she was called up from dinner to help with translations of instructions for how the small number of Russian passengers should evacuate.

"We were looking for them, searching for them (the Russians)," she told Jurnal. "We heard them all crying, shouting in all languages."

She said Schettino had stayed on deck until 11:50 p.m., when he ordered her into a lifeboat; the ship had hit the reef at 9:45 p.m.

Prosecutor Francesco Verusio declined to comment on whether he was seeking Cermotan as a witness, citing the ongoing investigation.

Without providing her name, Costa said the woman was registered with the ship and that it was prepared to give authorities both her identity and the paperwork for her ticket.

Divers, meanwhile, were focusing on an evacuation route on ship's 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 Thursday to blow holes into hard-to-reach areas for easier access by divers.

Seven of the dead were identified Thursday by authorities — four French passengers, one Spanish and one Italian passenger and one Peruvian crew member. Italian passenger Giovanni Masia, who news reports said would have turned 86 next week, was buried in Sardinia.

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 on the reef Wednesday had postponed the start of a 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, 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."

The area is very close to a marine sanctuary for dolphins, porposies and whales.

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."

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. The company had approved a similar maneuver in August.

However, Lloyd's List Intelligence, a leading maritime publication, says its tracking showed that the ship's August route actually took the Concordia slightly closer to Giglio than the course that caused the grounding last week.

Costa is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp.

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Alison Mutler reported from Bucharest. Fanuel Morelli contributed from Giglio, Italy and Angela Charlton from Paris.

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