Francesco Schettino investigated for manslaughter and abandoning ship after three die and 41 unaccounted for

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The Italian captain of the ship that sank off the coast of Tuscany was detained by prosecutors as efforts continued to search for the missing.

Three people were confirmed to have died and 41 were still unaccounted for after the 114,000-tonne Costa Concordia smashed into rocks near the island of Giglio.

Authorities said that Francesco Schettino, 52, who has worked for the owners of the cruise liner for 11 years, was being investigated for manslaughter and abandoning his ship. Prosecutor Francesco Velusio was quoted as saying that the vessel "was mistakenly close" to the island on a route ordered by Schettino through well-mapped sea lanes.

There was speculation that a power failure on board the ship could have led to a loss of navigational control, sending it smashing into the rocks. Experts said that passengers reported a power blackout and a large blast, which may have indicated an explosion in the engine room.

The ship came to rest half submerged on its side, yards from Giglio late on Friday. There was anger among the thousands of passengers who had swum or been ferried and flown to safety over what they described as a botched evacuation by crew members who panicked. Italian police confirmed that two French tourists and a Peruvian crew member had died in the accident. About 30 people were reported to have been injured, with three remaining critical.

Costa Crociere, the cruise operator, said that all 25 British passengers and 12 British crew on board were accounted for, but a British embassy official was unable to confirm the figure.

Survivors described panic, confusion and fear as the ship began to list heavily following what sounded like a loud explosion. "Have you seen Titanic? That's exactly what it was like for us," said Valerie Ananias, 31, a schoolteacher from Los Angeles travelling with her sister and parents.

Kirsty Cook, one of eight British dancers working on the ship, said that she was "lucky to be alive" after using a rope ladder to climb down to a rescue boat. Another dancer, Rosie Metcalf, 22, from Dorset, had to cling to a fire hose before being winched to safety by a helicopter crew.

The Costa Concordia, which was built in Italy and launched in 2006, set off from Civitavecchia on Friday for a Mediterranean cruise, carrying 3,206 passengers and 1,023 crew. As the ship slid between Giglio and the coast, passengers sitting down for their first dinner on board felt a shudder before the lights went out.

Despite an announcement that the ship had suffered no more than an electrical failure, diners became suspicious as their drinks began to tilt on the tables in front of them. Schettino said that the ship had struck rocks "which were not indicated on maps". He denied allegations that he was sailing too close to the coast.

"We were 300 metres from the rocks and that outcrop should not have been there," he said. As dawn broke yesterday, a huge chunk of torn-off rock could be seen protruding from a 50-metre long gash in the ship's hull below the waterline.

Schettino tried to steer the ship towards the coast to make evacuation easier, but as water poured into the lower decks the vessel began to list dangerously and it was soon too late to lower the lifeboats.

Passengers complained that they had urged crew members to let them on to the lifeboats as the ship manoeuvred but were told the captain had not yet given permission. A group of Croatian tourists said that, due to the listing of the ship, one lifeboat that had been eventually loaded with passengers crashed back into the hull.

"There was panic immediately," said Francesca Sinatra, a passenger from Rome. "People were shouting and climbing on each other." The lifeboat that she was in collided a number of times with the listing hull as it was lowered due to the angle, she added.

Mara Parmegiani Alfonsi, an Italian journalist who was on board, said that the crew did not appear to have been trained for the emergency.

Rescue ships arrived as the vessel tipped closer to the water, sending furniture and crockery crashing throughout the ship. Helicopters were dispatched by the coastguard, navy and air force to hoist people to safety and light up the sea with searchlights as passengers - "a few hundred", according to one rescuer - plunged into the water to swim to the shore.

Costa Crociere said: "Emergency procedures have been promptly activated, our crew members on board are professionally trained and they took all the necessary actions to assist our guests and help them to evacuate the ship."

But the sailors' union Nautilus International said that, 100 years on from the sinking of the Titanic, "many ships are now effectively small towns at sea, and the sheer number of people on board raises serious questions about evacuation".