The command of the shipwrecked Costa Concordia faced mounting scrutiny on Sunday over its handling of the ship's ill-fated journey, which ended in a disorderly evacuation and at least five deaths.
The number of unaccounted people dropped to 15 over the weekend, a coast guard spokesman said, as authorities discovered more passengers who had made it to shore safely, checking their names off the ship's passenger and crew lists. Rescuers also plucked more survivors from inside the ship, including an Italian crew member, recovered early Sunday, and two South Korean honeymooners on Saturday.
The rescues, however, did little to assuage public questions about what went wrong aboard the Costa Concordia. Italian prosecutors have launched an investigation into the shipwreck, detaining the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, for questioning while top Italian officials criticized the ship for sailing so close to the shore of the island of Giglio, causing it to strike a rock formation just off the coast of the island. The ship might have sailed only 150 yards from the shore, Francesco Verusio, the lead prosecutor in the investigation, told Italian TV, adding that his team is looking at satellite images to verify its exact course.
A lawyer for Mr. Schettino, who hasn't been charged, didn't respond to a written request for comment. Calls to the captain's lawyer's law firm went unanswered.
"It seems the captain committed errors of judgment that had grave consequences," Costa Concordia's operator, Carnival Corp.'s Costa Crociere SpA, said late Sunday, adding that the "route of the ship was too close the coast."
Accounts of the collision, from passengers and Italian officials, show the crew also hesitated in notifying passengers and the coast guard that a crisis was brewing aboard the boat. That led to a delay in evacuation measures, sowing panic throughout the boat as it began to twist sideways in the water, upending its decks.
"It appears (Mr. Schettino's) decisions in managing the emergency didn't follow the procedures of Costa Crociere, which are in line and, in some cases, go beyond international standards," Costa Crociere said.
Some analysts said the handling of the shipwreck illustrates the safety risks that arise as cruise lines commission bigger ships, some large enough to carry the population of a large town.
The big ships have been a boon to profitability. Costa Crociere, which also runs ships under the Aida and Ibercruceros brands, was one of Italy's 10-most-profitable enterprises in 2010, according to a Mediobanca analysis. The company had consolidated group revenue of just under €3 billion ($3.8 billion) in 2010 and carried 2.15 million passengers, up 18% from the previous year.
But bigger ships also require larger crews—sometimes reaching more than a thousand members. Friday's accident raises doubts about whether big crews are properly trained to coordinate among each other in high-pressure operations like an evacuation, according to some analysts.
"Cruise ships have grown so much in the last 15 years that it's really difficult to handle emergency situations," said Marco Calabria, a cruise-ship consultant. "And the difficulty increases exponentially to the number of people on board."
The Costa Concordia—originally designed to carry 2,720 passengers—was carrying 3,216 tourist-class passengers when it left the port of Civitavecchia at 7:30 p.m. on Friday. No evacuation drills were conducted that day, passengers said, as the cruise had scheduled its first drills for Saturday.
About two hours into the trip, the ship took a detour from its "usual" route to give passengers an up-close view of Giglio's port town by night, according to officials there.
Upon approaching the port, the ship hit a rock that wasn't marked on nautical maps, Mr. Schettino, the captain, would later tell reporters. Instead, the ship struck Le Scole, a well-known rock formation, that skirts the coast of Giglio, according to Italian officials.
The impact tore a 160-foot gash in the hull that sent water gushing into the ship. Passengers said they heard a loud groan echo throughout the ship at around 9:30 p.m. and the lights went out, leaving them in darkness.
On the Italian mainland, the coast guard began receiving scattered complaints from passengers aboard the ship, but the ship's command hadn't yet issued an SOS, according to an Italian official briefed on the matter. At 10:14 p.m., the coast guard made its first call to ship's command to check on the vessel and was told the situation was "under control," the official said. That was hardly the case, passengers said.
Angel Morales, 53 years old, was seated at dinner with his wife when the boat struck the rock. Glasses and plates slid off the tables as the boat tilted.
"Waiters were picking them up as if it was nothing," he said. "They kept saying that it was nothing, that it was an electrical problem."
Many of the passengers struggled to communicate with crew members, because they didn't speak Italian, said Giuseppe Raciotti, a TV director who was aboard the ship with 200 other colleagues. "We kept looking into their eyes to understand how serious the situation was. We got signs to wait," he said.
About 20 minutes passed before the first set of instructions came over the loudspeaker, said Elena Perilli, a 47 year-old Italian journalist who was also dining on the ship with her partner.
"There was an announcement saying that we shouldn't panic," she recalled. Twenty more minutes passed, she said, before further instructions came: Seven loud beeps of the ship's evacuation alarm.
By then, the boat was listing too severely to lower all of the lifeboats, said passengers. "When we saw the lifeboats we understood that they were not enough for everyone so there was an assault," Ms. Perilli said, noting that she and other passengers piled into an "overloaded" lifeboat.
As coast guard helicopters and private boats rushed to the scene, people were leaping off the ship decks into dark cold waters.
Italian authorities late Saturday recovered the ship's black-box recorder, but it is too soon to say what, if anything, it may reveal about the accident.
The Costa Concordia, meanwhile, remains lying flat on its starboard side, partly submerged in the shallow waters off the coast of Giglio with the gash in its upturned hull poking out of the water.
On Sunday, Italian officials seized on the befallen ship to criticize the cruise industry's reliance on megaships. Big cruise ships shouldn't be allowed in environmentally sensitive areas like Giglio, Italian Environment Minister Corrado Clini told local television Sunday. "This is not sustainable tourism but dangerous tourism," he said of the Concordia shipwreck.
The company and its insurer must now decide whether to declare the Concordia a "total loss"—entitling Costa to recover its €450 million outlay for the five-year-old ship—or try to repair it.
While the rescue mission remains the priority, Mr. Clini said, the next step is to rush to secure the capsized ship's fuel. Dutch specialist company SMIT has been contracted to use so-called "hot-tapping" techniques to extract an estimate 2,500 metric tons of fuel. The process can take up to two weeks depending on climate conditions and the precise weak points in the ship's hull.
Protection and indemnity insurance—covering passengers and potential environmental damage—is covered separately. Insurance industry experts say such policies typically cover "nautical error," but continuing uncertainty about how the ship ended up so close to shore in the first place may lead to a legal battle. "Gross human error" was to blame, Italian Defense Minister Giampaolo Di Paola, an admiral himself, said on state television.