The captain, the dinner and the Moldovan ballerina

By Michael Day

The Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster yesterday served up the final ingredients needed for a true scandal; a pretty young woman allegedly seen with the ship's captain shortly before the crash.

Claims that a "mystery woman" - swiftly identified as 25-year-old ballerina Domnica Cemortan from Moldova - was on the bridge of the ship with its disgraced captain, Francesco Schettino, have unleashed a torrent of questions and accusations. They also gave investigators a new lead amid suggestions the ship's commander had been drinking before the accident.

Reports said the presence of the young woman on the bridge may have provided another distraction for the show-boating skipper, who it appears was already intent on making a risky "sail-by" at the pretty Tuscan island of Giglio that ended in tragedy.

Captain Schettino is under house arrest, accused of multiple manslaughter and of abandoning ship before his passengers. Police and prosecutors said they were keen to talk to the dancer over suggestions she was on the bridge with the captain at the time of impact.

Italian newspapers and British tabloids dispatched reporters to Moldova in search of the femme fatale. But she surfaced yesterday in an interview with Roman newspaper Adevarul, in which she confirmed she had been on the deck with Schettino.

But she said that at the moment of the vessel's impact with rocks, she was at dinner. She says she was then called on to the deck to translate into Russian information that officers wanted to relay to passengers.

Cemortan defended Schettino, saying his actions after the crash had saved thousands of people. She said he was "very skilful and experienced when it comes to manoeuvring the ship in enclosed spaces".

Costa Costiere, the Concordia's owners, denied reports that Cemortan, who has worked for the company, had not been correctly registered as a passenger.

A witness quoted in another Italian newspaper said he had seen Schettino "drink several glasses of wine" with a companion and an officer, while all three dined at the ship's ritzy Club Concordia restaurant at 9.05pm, about 35 minutes before the ship's impact with the rocks.

In the Il Secolo XIX newspaper, passenger Angelo Fabbri from Savona said Schettino had "just finished his first glass, and the waiter was about to pour the last drop from the decanter in rather high spirits".

Schettino, 52, dressed in a dinner suit, was sitting in front of a young woman, whom the witness thought "might have been his daughter". They appeared to be enjoying themselves and there "was no doubt they drank the whole decanter and that the last drop went to the captain".

Meanwhile, an audiotape emerged yesterday of the first contact between Livorno port officials and the Costa Concordia, carrying 4229 people, in which the bridge is heard insisting that the cruise ship is suffering only an electrical blackout - 30 minutes after it had hit the reef.

In the communication, an unidentified officer is heard assuring the port official that he was checking out the reasons for the blackout. He doesn't reveal the ship has hit a reef.

However, the port officer tells the ship that his agency had heard from a relative of one of the ship's sailors that "during dinner everything fell on their heads".

"We are verifying the conditions on board," the officer replies.

Asked if passengers had been told to put on life jackets, he responds: "Correct."

Costa Crociere 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.

Schettino's lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, said his client was "overcome and wants to express his greatest condolences to the victims".

Last night 11 people had been confirmed dead and 21 were still missing.

- Independent

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