This story was originally published Jan. 16, 2012.
GIGLIO, Italy - Maritime authorities, passengers, and mounting evidence pointed Sunday toward the captain of a cruise liner that ran aground and rolled over off the Tuscan coast, amid accusations 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 partly 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 about 36 hours after the grounding late Friday.
Meanwhile, attention focused on the captain, who was spotted by Coast Guard officials and passengers fleeing 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 that 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 that he 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, said 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 did not 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 S.p.A., issued a statement late Sunday that 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, Capt. 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 a decade.
The ship was just 150 yards from shore at the time.