As captain Francesco Schettino kicks back with an espresso and puts his feet up at home south of Naples, an army of police, divers, firefighters are working with the Coast Guard to clean up the mess that he left behind on the Italian island of Giglio a week ago.

The massive cruise ship is still lying on its side like a beached whale in the crystal-clear water of the bay and at night its stark white and blue upper deck emerges from the shadows like the surreal backdrop of a Hollywood set.

The chilling silence is punctuated by the glib live crosses of a string of TV presenters from New York to Berlin lined up along a narrow pier at the end.

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You may feel you already know the man who ran away from his sinking ship as thousands of passengers were dutifully lining up for a lifeboat. He has been labelled “Captain Coward” on one side of the Atlantic and “Captain Chicken” on the other. Others say he is the most hated man in Italy.

Eleven people are dead and more than 20 people are still missing after the cruise ship under his command, the Costa Concordia, ran aground on Friday with 4200 people on board.

A Moldavian blonde called Dominika, who said she was with the captain when the alarm was sounded, described him as a hero, as shocking vision emerged on Thursday showing crew members ordering desperate passengers in their life jackets not to worry and to return to their cabins.

Captain Cosimo Nicastro from the Coast Guard put it this way: “We know the ship never sent a distress signal. We knew something about the crash because passengers were calling their relatives. We called the captain at least twice asking him about the situation. Finally he said there was water on board, they never sent a mayday.”

The prospect of finding any more survivors is now grim and there is a growing risk of an environmental disaster as 2400 tonnes of fuel and other chemicals sit in the bottom of a vessel balanced precariously metres from the shore of this pretty Tuscan island, a nature reserve popular with summer tourists. The vessel has already moved 1.5 metres in the past week and if it slides away from the coast the fuel tanks are likely to rupture as it drops to a deeper level of up to 100 metres.

“Our time is very limited,” environment minister Corrado Clini said Thursday. “We run the risk of the ship moving, being damaged and a rupture of the fuel tanks.”

More than one passenger has likened the disaster to the ill-fated Titanic. And images of the dramatic evacuation on the night itself confirmed it.

“It was like a movie,” says local shopkeeper Ornella. “We heard noises in the middle of the night, then we went down and saw people getting into the lifeboats. They arrived on shore shocked and wet with hardly anything on. I felt terrible.”

Schettino, 52, is under house arrest at his home in Meta di Sorrento and faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted on multiple counts of manslaughter, causing a disaster and abandoning ship.

Italians were outraged when a judge transferred him from a local prison to house arrest after a court hearing this week. Foreigners were gobsmacked.

While Schettino has been condemned around the world, in his hometown his family has rallied and locals are waving banners saying “Captain don’t give up”. “We are neither friends nor relatives,” the banner wavers said. “We want to tell him that we will never abandon one of our own.”

Yet a screaming match recorded between the captain and Gregorio De Falco, head of the local port authority at Livorno, presents a very different picture of what happened that night. Not only did the ship’s captain delay the evacuation, he jumped ship well before thousands of others and then lied about how many were on board. When he left the ship he jumped in a taxi and asked the driver to help him buy some socks.

“Listen Schettino perhaps you saved yourself from the sea. But I will make you look very bad. I will make you pay for this,” De Falco told Schettino in one taped telephone call when he discovered him on a lifeboat. “Get back on board for f-ck’s sake.”

Kevin Rebello, an Indian national who lives in Milan, has spent days searching for his 33-year-old brother, Russel, a waiter on the stricken ship with a wife and toddler waiting for news in Bombay. Kevin had strong words to say about the captain’s house arrest.

“If he was found in Germany, France or an Arab country like Dubai, or an Asian country, he would not be home sipping coffee with his mum. He would be in prison and he would be having a very tough time,” Rebello said quietly.

“You cannot be so irresponsible when you are handling such a big ship. This is not Disneyland. You are not having fun here. You are playing with people’s lives.”

As the search resumed for the missing on Thursday, there were emotional scenes on Giglio after two French victims were identified, while distraught  mother Susy Albertini made a tearful appeal on TV for her five-year-old daughter Dayana who was on the ship with her ex-husband. He too disappeared.

Gian Luca Ricciardulli is leading a team of expert divers from the National Alpine and Caving Rescue Corp on the search and rescue mission. Specially trained for mountain and cave rescues, they pulled survivors from the wreckage of the earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009.

Now they are working with navy divers who on Thursday used small explosives to make three new holes in the side of the Costa Concordia in a last ditch bid to find survivors.

As winds and waves were expected to pick up overnight, time was running out to find any survivors or the bodies of the victims.

“You can never say never,” Ricciardulli said. “Until I find a person or a body I have to think he or she is a only a missing person. Until the doctor tells me that person is dead, I will never say they are dead.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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