GIGLIO, Italy, Jan 21 (Reuters) - The captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia, which struck a rock and capsized off Italy, told magistrates he informed the ship's owners of the accident immediately, denying he had delayed raising the alarm, judicial sources said on Saturday.
Captain Francesco Schettino has been blamed for causing the Jan. 13 accident in which at least 11 people died. He is under house arrest, accused of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship before all passengers were evacuated.
His statements to prosecutors investigating the disaster, reported in the Italian press and confirmed by judicial sources,
underline the growing battle between him and Costa Cruise Lines which operates the 114,500 tonne vessel.
The liner, carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew, ran aground and capsized off the Tuscan island of Giglio as dinner was being served. It is now precariously lying on its side on an undersea ledge, half-submerged and threatening to slide into deeper waters.
Diving crews resumed search operations on Saturday, but hopes of finding anyone alive have all but gone.
Twenty-one people are still unaccounted for.
Prosecutors say Schettino steered the vessel within 150 metres of Giglio island to perform a manoeuvre known as a "salute" - a greeting to the islanders. He has admitted to coming too close to shore but has denied bearing sole responsibility, saying other factors may have been involved.
According to transcripts published by Italian media of his questioning by prosecutors, he said that immediately after hitting the rock he sent two of his officers to the engine room to check on the state of the vessel.
As soon as he realised the scale of the damage, he called Roberto Ferrarini, director of operations for Costa Cruises.
"I told him: I've got myself into a mess, there was a contact with the seabed. I am telling you the truth, we passed under Giglio and there was an impact," Schettino said.
"I can't remember how many times I called him in the following hour and 15 minutes. In any case, I am certain that I informed Ferrarini about everything in real time," he said, adding he had asked the company to send tug boats and helicopters.
Costa Cruises Chief Executive Pier Luigi Foschi says Schettino delayed issuing the SOS and evacuation orders and gave false information to the company headquarters.
"Personally, I think he wasn't honest with us," Foschi told Corriere della Sera on Friday. He said the first phone conversation between Schettino and Ferrarini took place 20 minutes after the impact with the rock.
"That is too late," he said, adding the company had only realised the scale of the disaster when the evacuation order was issued, something prosecutors say happened more than one hour after the first conversation between Schettino and Ferrarini.
"If the ship had been abandoned sooner, we would not have lost human lives," Foschi said.
Costa is a unit of Carnival Corp.
Costa has suspended Schettino and declared itself an injured party in the case. Documents from his hearing with a judge say he had shown "incredible carelessness" and a "total inability to manage the successive phases of the emergency."
Emergency crews resumed their search for bodies on Saturday, blasting holes into the hulk of the ship. Rescue work was suspended on Friday when the wreck shifted on the rocks, complicating the task facing divers who are already hampered by poor visibility, floating objects and underwater debris.
"The movement of the ship is very dangerous," said a coast guard official. "There are big risks, but we all looked each other in the eyes and told each other it was worth it to give the families some solace."
The movement was only few millimetres an hour, but it raised fears the ship would slip further, undermining plans to pump some 2,400 tonnes of fuel out of its tanks.
"The ship is moving," said Nicola Castagli, professor of earth sciences at the University of Florence, in charge of monitoring the movement of the ship. "It's a massive object that's resting on its side where there are currents, waves, and on a slope."
Franco Gabrielli, the head of the Civil Protection Authority, told reporters it was important to start recovering the thick fuel oil and diesel trapped on board as soon as possible, adding the extraction and search operations should go on simultaneously.
"Our aim is to find the missing, to give certainty about the fate of these people, but it is also a priority to avert an environmental disaster," he said.
SMIT, the Dutch company hired to salvage the fuel oil and diesel, said it was ready to begin extraction operations and was awaiting orders from authorities.