ROME Jan. 18, 2012 — -- The captain of the Italian cruise ship gave a slapstick explanation of how he ended up safely in a lifeboat instead of going down with his ship, saying he tripped and fell into the boat as it was being lowered into the sea, Italian media reported today.
"I had no intention of escaping," Francesco Schettino, 52, said during his first court hearing Tuesday, according to Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper.
"I was helping some passengers put the life boat to sea. At a certain point the mechanism for lowering it, blocked. We had to force it. Suddenly the system unblocked itself and I tripped and I found myself inside the life boat with a number of passengers."
Once in the lifeboat that was lowered into the sea, Schettino insisted to the court that it was "impossible to go back onboard."
The captain also reportedly admitted to the court that he lied at one point when he assured officials that he had dropped anchor shortly after the Costa Concordia slammed into a rock to stabilize the luxury liner.
However a video by the Guardia di Finanza who arrived onsite 10 minutes after the disaster clearly shows that the anchor had not been lowered. Schettino admitted Tuesday that he lied about the anchor, the newspaper reported.
The luxury cruise ship was carrying more than 4,000 passengers and crew when it struck rocks Friday evening near Giglio off the coast of Tuscany, during a close pass to shore. At least 11 people were killed in the aftermath when the ship keeled over. Nearly two dozen people are still missing, including an American couple from Minnesota.
Schettino reportedly admitted that he made mistakes that led to the crash and afterwards, but said the ship's course, including the now-controversial close pass, had been set from the beginning. The cruise line previously said Schettino had made an unauthorized deviation from the programmed route.
Schettino, who is currently under house arrest, is under investigation for potentially causing the wreck by steering into the rocks and then abandoning the panicked passengers for a lifeboat as the ship plunged over on its side. In recorded radio transmissions released Tuesday, Schettino is heard telling Italian Port Authority officials he and other officers abandoned ship.
"And with 100 people still on board, you abandon ship? [expletive]," the Port Authority officer says in response.
Schettino appears to correct himself, saying, "I didn't abandon any ship... because the ship turned on its side quickly and we were catapulted into the water."
The recording goes on to show the Port Authority official repeatedly berating Schettino for not going back to the ship to coordinate rescue efforts, and at one point ordering Schettino to "get back on board for [expletive]'s sake!"
Italians appear divided on how to view the embattled cruise captain.
Some, like Schettino's neighbor, said he "is a hero who saved over 4,000 people," Italy's ANSA news outlet reported. Schettino's wife said Tuesday her husband made some quick decisions after the initial impact that helped save passenger's lives.
"It is for this reason that we feel the need to strongly reject any attempt to delegitimize him and ask you to understand his tragedy and personal drama," Fabiola Russo told reporters Tuesday.
In editorials in Italian newspapers, however, Schettino was heavily criticized, one calling him the "coward captain" and another saying the incident shows the Italian national character with its greatness and "all its shortcomings."
Online Facebook groups have reportedly emerged on either side of the argument.