GIGLIO, Italy — The captain of a cruise liner that ran aground and capsized off the Tuscan coast faced accusations Sunday from authorities and passengers that he abandoned ship before everyone was safely evacuated and was showing off when he steered the vessel far too close to shore.
Divers searching the murky depths of the partially submerged Costa Concordia found the bodies of two elderly men still in their life jackets, bringing the confirmed death toll to five. At least 15 people were still missing, including two Americans.
The recovered bodies were discovered at an emergency gathering point near the restaurant where many of the 4,200 on board were dining when the luxury liner struck rocks or a reef off the tiny island of Giglio. The Italian news agency ANSA reported the dead were an Italian and a Spaniard.
Still, there were glimmers of hope: The rescue of three survivors – a young South Korean couple on their honeymoon and a crew member brought to shore in a dramatic airlift some 36 hours after the grounding late Friday.
Meanwhile, attention focused on the captain, who was spotted by Coast Guard officials and passengers fleeing the scene even as the chaotic and terrifying evacuation was under way.
The ship's Italian owner, a subsidiary of Carnival Cruise lines, issued a statement late Sunday saying there appeared to be "significant human error" on the part of the captain, Francesco Schettino, "which resulted in these grave consequences."
Authorities were holding Schettino for suspected manslaughter and a prosecutor confirmed Sunday they were also investigating allegations the captain abandoned the stricken liner before all the passengers had escaped. According to the Italian navigation code, a captain who abandons a ship in danger can face up to 12 years in prison.
A French couple who boarded the Concordia in Marseille, Ophelie Gondelle and David Du Pays, told the Associated Press they saw the captain in a lifeboat, covered by a blanket, well before all the passengers were off the ship.
"The commander left before and was on the dock before everyone was off," said Gondelle, 28, a French military officer.
"Normally the commander should only leave at the end," said Du Pays, a police officer who said he helped an injured passenger to a rescue boat. "I did what I could."
Coast Guard officers later spotted Schettino on land as the evacuation unfolded. The officers urged him to return to his ship and honor his duty to stay aboard until everyone was safely off the vessel, but he ignored them, Coast Guard Cmdr. Francesco Paolillo said.
Schettino insisted he didn't leave the liner early, telling Mediaset television that he had done everything he could to save lives. "We were the last ones to leave the ship," he said.
Questions also swirled about why the ship had navigated so close to the dangerous reefs and rocks that jut off Giglio's eastern coast, amid suspicions the captain may have ventured too close while carrying out a maneuver to entertain tourists on the island.
The ship's owner, Costa Crociere SpA, issued a statement late Sunday saying it was working with investigators to determine "precisely what went wrong aboard the Costa Concordia."
"While the investigation is ongoing, preliminary indications are that there may have been significant human error on the part of the ship's master, Captain Francesco Schettino, which resulted in these grave consequences," the statement said. "The route of the vessel appears to have been too close to the shore, and the captain's judgment in handling the emergency appears to have not followed standard Costa procedures."
Residents of Giglio said they had never seen the Costa come so close to the dangerous "Le Scole" reef area.
"This was too close, too close," said Italo Arienti, a 54-year-old sailor who has worked on the Maregiglio ferry between Giglio and the mainland for more than a decade. Pointing to a nautical map, he drew his finger along the path the ship usually takes and the jarring one close to shore that it followed Friday.
The ship was a mere 150 yards (meters) from shore at the time of the grounding, ANSA quoted Grosseto prosecutor Francesco Verusio as saying.
Schettino insisted he was twice as far out and said the ship ran aground because the rocks weren't marked on his nautical charts.
However, he did concede he was maneuvering the ship in "touristic navigation" – implying a route that was a deviation from the norm and designed to entertain the tourists.
"We were navigating approximately 300 meters (yards) from the rocks," he told Mediaset television. "There shouldn't have been such a rock. On the nautical chart it indicated that there was water deep below."
Costa captains have occasionally steered the ship near port and sounded the siren in a special salute, Arienti said. Such a nautical "fly-by" was staged last August, prompting the town's mayor to send a note of thanks to the commander for the treat it provided tourists who flock to the island, local news portal GiglioNews.it reported.
But Arienti and other residents said even on those occasions, the cruise ship always stayed far offshore, well beyond the reach of the "Le Scole" reefs.
"Every so often they would do a greeting, but not so close – far away, safely," said resident Giacomo Dannipale.
Douglas Ward, a cruise expert and author of the 2012 Berlitz guide to cruises, said the waters around Giglio are too shallow for such maneuvers.
Coast Guard Cmdr. Filippo Marini said divers had recovered the so-called "black box," with the recording of the navigational details, from a compartment now under water, though no details were released.
Jorgen Loren, chairman of the Swedish Maritime Officer's Association, said the captain clearly deviated from the ship's intended route.
"It is remarkable because weather conditions were good and these cruise ships have the best and most modern technical equipment. All conditions were ideal," he said.
"These are well-known waters, ferries pass here every day going back and forward to the mainland," he said.
Meanwhile, rescue work continued into the night on the unsubmerged half of the Concordia, said firefighters spokesman Luca Cari. Sniffer dogs were being brought in, although it was unclear if they could adapt to working in an environment where the horizontal became the vertical, due to the 90-degree list of the ship.
Marini, the coast guard captain, held out hope there could still be survivors, perhaps holed up in the section still above water, or that some of the unaccounted passengers simply didn't report their safe arrival on land.
Earlier Sunday, a helicopter airlifted a cabin crew member from the capsized hulk just hours after South Korean honeymooners were rescued from their cabin when firefighters heard their screams.
A relative of the rescued crewman told reporters he had survived two nights in darkness and with his feet in water.
Besides the two dead discovered Sunday, the bodies of three other victims – two French passengers and a Peruvian crewman – were pulled out of the sea in the hours after the accident.
Survivors described a terrifying escape that was straight out of a scene from "Titanic." Many complained the crew didn't give them good directions on how to evacuate and once the emergency became clear, delayed lowering the lifeboats until the ship was listing too heavily for all to be released.
"We were left to ourselves," pregnant French passenger Isabelle Mougin, who injured her ankle in the scramble, told the ANSA news agency.
Another French passenger, Jeanne Marie de Champs, said that faced with the chaotic scene at the lifeboats, she decided to take her chances swimming to shore.
"I was afraid I wouldn't make the shore, but then I saw we were close enough, I felt calmer," she told Sky News 24.
Coast Guard diver Majko Aidone, interviewed by Sky TG24 TV after his dive, explained that the first task after gaining access to a submerged space, is to tie down large floating objects, like mattresses, which could turn into dangerous obstacles.
Then, in hopes of alerting any survivors to their presence, "we make noise," he said.
Crews in dinghies climbed on board the exposed hull of the ship and touched it, near the site of the 160-foot-long (50-meter-long) gash where water flooded in and caused the ship to topple on its side.
Earlier Sunday, at a Mass held in Giglio's main church, which opened its doors to the evacuees Friday night, altar boys and girls brought up a life vest, a rope, a rescue helmet, a plastic tarp and some bread.
Don Lorenzo, the parish priest, told the faithful that he wanted to make this admittedly "different" offering to God as a memory of the tragedy.
"Our community, our island will never be the same," he said.
Malin Rising in Stockholm, Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris and Victor L. Simpson and Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed.