Rome: A young Moldovan woman, who says she was called to the bridge of the stricken Costa Concordia to help evacuate Russian passengers, defended the embattled captain on Thursday, saying he worked tirelessly and "saved over 3,000 lives."
Domnica Cemortan, who says she was translating Capt Francesco Schettino's orders during the frenzied evacuation, has emerged as a potential new witness in the investigation into the officer's actions the night the ship ran aground.
Schettino is under house arrest, facing possible charges of manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing a shipwreck after he made an unauthorized detour from the programmed route that caused the vessel to slam into a reef and capsize off the Tuscan island of Giglio. At least 11 people were killed and 21 are missing.
Meanwhile, a new audiotape of the doomed vessel's first communications with maritime authorities showed the ship's officers continued to report only an electrical problem for more than 30 minutes after hitting the reef.
Attention has focused on Cemortan amid reports by crew and passengers that Schettino was seen eating dinner with a Russian-speaking woman at the time of the impact. The 25-year-old Cemortan speaks Russian and had worked as a hostess for the Italian cruise operator, although her contract had expired and she was vacationing with friends when she boarded the luxury liner hours before the Jan. 13 disaster.
"I saw him at the restaurant. He was with a blonde woman. He did not look drunk. They were just eating," a Filipino cocktail waitress, Gladly Balderama, said of Schettino.
Another Filipino crew member, Roger Barsita, said he served Schettino and a woman dinner.
"I have no idea who she is," he told The Associated Press in Manila. "Some of the waiters said she's Russian."
In interviews with Moldovan media, Cemortan said she was dining with "colleagues, so to speak" in the ship's restaurant when the ship struck the reef. She said she was summoned to the bridge to translate instructions for passengers, particularly Russians, since she speaks several languages. Moldova is a former Soviet republic.
"All our colleagues made announcements in different languages because there was a problem with the electricity. It was very dark on the ship," she told the Moldovan daily Adevarul. "I stayed on the bridge in case the captain needed me to make an announcement. There were about 20 more officers, cruise directors and the captain."
She defended Schettino and crew members against criticism of a chaotic evacuation, saying they saved thousands of lives.
"He did a great thing, he saved over 3,000 lives," she told Moldova's Jurnal TV.
Prosecutor Francesco Verusio declined to comment on Italian media reports that Cemortan was being sought as a witness, citing the ongoing investigation.
Divers, meanwhile, were focusing on an evacuation route on the ship's fourth level, now about 60 feet (18 meters) below the surface, where five bodies were found earlier this week, Navy spokesman Alessandro Busonero told Sky TG 24. Crews set off small explosions to blow holes into hard-to-reach areas for easier access by divers.
Seven of the dead were identified Thursday by authorities - four French passengers, one Spanish and one Italian passenger and one Peruvian crew member. Italian passenger Giovanni Masia, who would have turned 86 next week, was buried in Sardinia.
Italian authorities have identified 32 people who have either died or are missing: two Americans, 12 Germans, seven Italians, six French, two Peruvians and one person each from Hungary, India and Spain.
Meanwhile, a new audiotape of the Concordia's first contact with maritime authorities appeared to support allegations that the captain and other senior officers were slow to recognize the seriousness of the accident.
In the tape, which begins at 10:12 pm, the port authority asks if everything is ok. A Concordia officer replies that the ship had experienced a blackout, even though it had hit the reef more than half an hour earlier.
Italian media reported the officer on the call was Schettino, but that could not be independently confirmed.
The port official tells the officer that a relative of a crew member had reported to police on the mainland that "during the dinner everything fell on his head" - a reference to flying plates and glasses in the ship's restaurant after the impact.
"No, negative, we have a blackout and we are verifying the conditions on board," the response came. The port official then asked if passengers had suited up in life vests.
"I repeat, we are verifying the conditions of the blackout," the officer said.
Passengers and crew members have faulted Schettino and other senior officers for failing to act quickly, delaying evacuation until the ship was listing too severely to lower many of the lifeboats.
"They asked us to make announcements to say that it was electrical problems and that our technicians were working on it and not to panic," a French steward, Thibault Francois, told France-2 television. "I told myself, 'This doesn't sound good.'"
He said he eventually started escorting passengers to lifeboats on orders from his boss, not the captain. "No, there were no orders from the management," he said.
An Indian waiter agreed.
"The emergency alarm was sounded very late," only after the ship "started tilting and water started seeping in," said Mukesh Kumar, who arrived home in New Delhi on Thursday.
Cemortan, however, defended the captain and crew.
"How dare they accuse us that we were incompetent when we saved 3,000 lives," she wrote on her Facebook page. "Incompetent are the ones who have a poisonous tongue."
Cemortan described heroic efforts by crew members to help passengers in a dark and listing ship.
"We were looking for them, searching for them," she told Jurnal. "We heard them all crying, shouting in all languages."
"I couldn't see a thing, I could just hear how the ship was creaking and how heavy things were coming from above down to where the ship was leaning," she wrote on Facebook.