Death Toll For Shipwrecked Liner Rises To 11
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The death toll from the grounding of a cruise ship off the Italian coast rose to 11 today. Twenty-four people are still missing after Friday's shipwreck. As rescue efforts continued, the website of an Italian daily carried the dramatic audio of what it said were radio exchanges between the captain and the Coast Guard. And the captain's lawyer said today that his client is now under house arrest.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI BYLINE: At the preliminary hearing today, Captain Francesco Schettino denied all wrongdoing. He insisted his actions after the luxury cruise ship collided with a reef off the island of Giglio helped save hundreds and perhaps thousands of lives.
Schettino was arrested Saturday on suspicion of multiple manslaughter, shipwreck, and abandoning ship when there were thousands of people still to be evacuated.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The captain's position appeared further undermined by the release of audio of radio exchanges after the collision. The most shocking conversation is between Schettino and Livorno Coast Guard Commander Gregorio De Falco. De Falco orders the captain to return onboard.
GREGORIO DE FALCO: (Through Translator) You've abandoned ship. I'm in charge now. Go back and board and report to me how many passengers there are and what they need. Tell me if there are children, women or people in need of assistance and you tell me exactly how many they are. Is that clear?
POGGIOLI: The Coast Guard was first alerted by various Italian police departments. They had received calls from Italian passengers terrified by a big bang and violent impact that blew out power throughout the floating palace.
When first contacted by the Coast Guard, Captain Schettino said, there's nothing to worry about. We just have a technical problem with the electrical system. Pressed by officers, Schettino finally issued the May Day distress call a full hour after the collision.
As chaos and panic broke out as the massive ship started tilting sideways, many passengers started jumping overboard. In their exchange, Commander De Falco becomes increasingly enraged with the captain.
FALCO: (Through Translator) Come on. There are already dead bodies.
FRANCESCO SCHETTINO: (Through Translator) How many bodies?
FALCO: (Through Translator) I don't know. I know of one body, at least. You're the one who should tell me how many bodies there are.
POGGIOLI: The recording is full of the background noise of confusion, radio static, people shouting. Someone can be heard saying the word, Titanic. Throughout the conversation, Captain Schettino mostly mumbles, gives vague answers and makes contradictory statements.
Infuriated, the Coast Guard Commander raises the stakes.
FALCO: (Through Translator) Listen, Schettino. Perhaps you saved yourself from the sea, but I'll make you look very bad. I will make you pay for this. Go back onboard.
POGGIOLI: The captain then objects.
SCHETTINO: (Through Translator) You don't understand. It's dark here. Can't see anything.
FALCO: (Through Translator) What's this? You want to go home, Schettino? It's dark and you want to go home? Go to the bow of the ship where the ladder is and tell me what needs to be done, how many people there are and what they need - now.
POGGIOLI: At one point, Schettino can be heard agreeing to go back onboard, but until now, there's no indication that he did so. While investigations continue, rescue workers are racing against time and salvage experts against weather forecasts.
A 30-person team of a Dutch salvage company that will siphon off the ship's 500,000 gallons of fuel is onsite with equipment. They're ready to start operating tomorrow and predict the entire job will take at least a few weeks.
The pristine waters around Giglio have been calm for days, but local sailors warn against the approaching (unintelligible), the northwesterly wind that can churn up waves three to five meters high.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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