THE legal disaster engulfing the owners of the Costa Concordia liner appeared to be deepening last night following the company's admission that staff were aware of the captain's "character problems" ahead of the accident that claimed up to 32 lives.
The capsized liner's commander, Captain Francesco Schettino, who appears to have fled the vessel ahead of his passengers after crashing it into rocks off the Italian coast 10 days ago, is under house arrest and could be charged with manslaughter.
Victims' groups and compensation lawyers are now looking at comments made by the Costa Cruises chief executive, Pier Luigi Foschi, to the Corriere Della Sera newspaper, in which he said: "He [Schettino] may have the odd little character problem, although nothing has ever been reported formally. He was seen as being a little hard on his colleagues. He liked to be in the limelight."
Last night, Carlo Rienzi, the president of Italy's national consumer group Codacons, said: "These comments [by Mr Foschi] will form part of the basis for our class action." Codacons is seeking a minimum of A10,000 compensation for all passengers.
Kendall Carver, president of the US-based International Cruise Victims group, said: "It's astonishing that company officials were aware of these 'character problems' but allowed him to have responsibility for over 4,000 people."
Costa Cruises did not wish to comment while judicial inquiries were underway.
It also emerged yesterday that Mr Schettino has told judicial authorities that Costa encouraged passenger-pleasing close approaches "at Sorrento, Capri and everywhere".
Costa has said such manoeuvres would have been done without company knowledge.
Mr Foschi said last week: "I can't exclude that ships have been sailed closer to land on the initiative of some captains."
Mr Schettino's claim that Costa officials approved of close approaches has been backed by the ex-Costa commander Mario Palombo.
Referring to a 2003 "drive-by" near to where the Costa Concordia is grounded, Mr Palomba said: "We passed very close. Obviously we asked permission."
But more devastating for Costa Cruises are claims by Mr Schettino that he alerted Costa's marine operation's director, Roberto Ferrarini, immediately after hitting the rocks.
Mr Schettino told Grosseto's preliminary investigations judge: "I told him [Mr Ferrarini]: I've got myself into a mess passing too close to Giglio and we collided." He said he continued to advise Costa of the situation and called for boats and helicopters to be sent.
Costa Cruises has so far denied it knew of the true gravity of the situation until the abandon ship signal was sounded 76 minutes later, a delay thought to have led to many of the deaths.
Rescuers yesterday pulled a woman's body from the ship, taking the confirmed death toll to 13, with 19 listed passengers still unaccounted for.
The pollution of the sea around the Giglio cruise liner wreck "has already begun", Franco Gabrielli, the head of Italy's civil protection agency, said last night.
He said that pollutants including cooking oils, detergents and chlorine had been detected near the ship. The big fear is that the Concordia's fuel tanks could rupture and spill 2,380 tons of toxic fuel oil into what is an important fishing area and marine nature reserve.
Oil-removal equipment has been standing by, waiting for the search-and-rescue operations to conclude before workers can start extracting the fuel in the tanks.
But yesterday, choppy seas kept divers from exploring the submerged part, where officials have said there could be bodies, including those of clandestine passengers not listed on the ship's log.