Published January 19, 2012
The search for 21 people still missing in the Costa Concordia shipwreck resumed Thursday amid reports the captain was seen dining with a mystery woman -- who may have been on board illegally -- shortly before the liner crashed off the Italian coast.
The woman is believed to be Domnica Cemortan, a 25-year-old Moldovan, thought to be the same blonde woman seen dining with Capt. Francesco Schettino Friday evening, almost an hour before the ship struck a reef, killing at least 11 people, the Italian newspaper Il Secolo XIX reported Thursday.
Cemortan, who may have been a guest of either Schettino or another officer, may emerge as a key witness to Friday night's events, though Italian prosecutors have not confirmed any reports about her.
A photo, released to FoxNews.com by Il Secolo XIX, shows a blonde female -- reportedly believed to be Cemortan -- dining on board with Schettino at 8:45 p.m. local time. The ship crashed almost an hour later at 9:42 p.m.
Cemortan does not appear on any official passenger or crew lists, and reportedly told Romanian newspaper Adevarul that she believed Schettino, who is accused of manslaughter and abandoning ship, saved thousands of lives.
The ship, operated by Genoa-based Costa Cruises and owned by Carnival Corporation, was carrying more than 4,200 people when it struck a reef and capsized off the Tuscan island of Giglio late Friday.
Schettino made an unauthorized diversion from his programmed route and strayed into the perilous waters. Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported on Monday that he may have sailed close to the rocky shores of Giglio to please his head waiter who comes from the island.
Officials and witnesses said earlier that the disaster may have been caused by a risky practice of close-passing the island of Giglio in a foghorn-blasting salute to the local population.
Divers resumed their search for the missing on Thursday, but rough seas forecast for later in the day added an element of uncertainty to the operation and plans to begin pumping fuel from the stranded vessel.
Also Thursday, a new audiotape emerged of the first contact between Livorno port officials and the Costa Concordia -- and Schettino is heard insisting that his cruise ship only had a blackout a full 30 minutes after it had rammed into a reef.
The recording between Schettino and port officials began at 10:12 p.m. Friday, more than 30 minutes after the ship violently hit a reef and panicked passengers had fled the dining room to get their lifejackets.
Schettino is heard assuring the officer that he was checking out the reasons for the blackout. But he doesn't volunteer that the ship had hit a reef.
Rather, the port officer tells Schettino that his agency had heard from a relative of one of ship's sailors that "during dinner everything fell on their heads." That was an apparent reference to the plates and glasses that slammed down onto passengers in the main dining room.
"We are verifying the conditions on board," Schettino replies. Asked if passengers had been told to put on life jackets, he responds: "Correct."
Crew members and passengers alike have complained about the chaotic evacuation and the lack of direction from the ship's management.
Meanwhile, divers were focusing on an evacuation route on the fourth level, now about 60 feet below the surface, where five bodies were found earlier this week, Navy spokesman Alessandro Busonero told Sky TG 24.
Officials restarted the search after determining the ship had stabilized after shifting on the rocks 24 hours earlier.
The ship's sudden movement also postponed the start of the operation to extract the half-million gallons of fuel on board the vessel, as Italy's environment minister warned Parliament of the ecological implications if the ship sinks.
"Today is an important day, the weather forecasts are negative, rough sea, we'll have to see how the ship reacts to that," firefighter spokesman Luca Cari said Thursday.
Also Thursday, seven of the dead were identified by authorities: French passengers Jeanne Gannard, Pierre Gregoire, Francis Servil, 71, and Jean-Pierre Micheaud, 61; Peruvian crew member Thomas Alberto Costilla Mendoza; Spanish passenger Guillermo Gual, 68, and Italian passenger Giovanni Masia, who news reports said would have turned 86 next week and was buried in Sardinia on Thursday.
Italian authorities have identified 32 people who have either died or are missing: 12 Germans, seven Italians, six French, two Peruvians, two Americans and one person each from Hungary, India and Spain.
Authorities on Wednesday identified the first victim: Sandor Feher, a 38-year-old Hungarian musician working aboard, who a fellow musician said helped crying children into lifejackets, then disappeared while trying to retrieve his beloved violin from his cabin.
Among the missing are an Italian father and his 5-year-old daughter. The girl's mother issued a fresh appeal to speed the search and for passengers who saw the pair to come forward to help determine where they were last seen.
Other missing include retirees Jerry and Barbara Heil of White Bear Lake, Minn.. The couple were treating themselves after putting four children through college.
The Heil children said in a blog post Wednesday that their parents were not among the passengers whose bodies were recently recovered, and they were praying that weather conditions would improve so authorities could resume search operations.
Capt. Francesco Schettino, who was jailed after he left the ship before everyone was safely evacuated, was placed under house arrest Tuesday, facing possible charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his ship.
The ship's operator, Crociere Costa SpA, has accused Schettino of causing the wreck by making the unapproved detour, and the captain has acknowledged carrying out what he called a "tourist navigation" that brought the ship closer to Giglio. Costa has said such a navigational "fly by" was done last Aug. 9-10, after being approved by the company and Giglio port authorities.
However, Lloyd's List Intelligence, a leading maritime publication, said Wednesday its tracking of the ship's August route showed it actually took the Concordia slightly closer to Giglio than the course that caused Friday's disaster.
"This is not a black-and-white case," Richard Meade, editor of Lloyd's List, said in a statement.
"Our data suggests that both routes took the vessel within 200 yards of the impact point and that the authorized route was actually closer to shore."
New audio of Schettino's communications with the coast guard during the crisis emerged Wednesday, with the captain claiming he ended up in a life raft after he tripped and fell into the water.
"I did not abandon a ship with 100 people on board, the ship suddenly listed and we were thrown into the water," Schettino said, according to a transcript published Wednesday in the Corriere della Sera paper.
Initial audio of Schettino's conversations made headlines on Tuesday, showing an increasingly exasperated coast guard officer ordering Schettino back on board to direct the evacuation, and the captain resisting, saying it was too dark and the ship was tipping.
The officer's order, "Get back on board, (expletive!)" has entered the Italian lexicon, becoming a Twitter hashtag and adorning T-shirts.
The Associated Press and Newscore contributed to this report.