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Cruise ship captain has a defender

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 yesterday, saying he worked tirelessly and "saved over 3,000 lives."

Domnica Cemortan, who said 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 his route that caused the vessel to slam into a reef Jan. 13 off the island of Giglio, Italy. At least 11 people were killed, and 21 are missing.

Meanwhile, a new audiotape of the vessel's first communications with maritime authorities after hitting the reef showed the ship's officers continued to report only an electrical problem for more than 30 minutes.

Attention has focused on Cemortan amid reports Schettino was seen at dinner with a Russian-speaking woman at the time of the impact. Cemortan, 25, speaks Russian and had worked as a hostess for the Italian cruise operator, although her contract had expired and she was vacationing with friends on the luxury liner.

"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, told The Associated Press in Manila he served the couple dinner.

In interviews with Moldovan media, Cemortan said she was summoned to the bridge to translate instructions for passengers, particularly Russians. Moldova is a former Soviet republic.

Other passengers and crew members have faulted Schettino and other officers for delaying evacuation until the ship was listing too severely.

Cemortan, however, speaking on Moldova's Jurnal TV, 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." She said Schettino stayed on deck at least until 11:50 p.m., when he ordered her into a lifeboat.

Carnival Corp. of Miami, which owns Italian operator Costa Crociere SpA, said it was conducting an audit of all 10 of its cruise lines to review emergency response procedures. The world's largest cruise line, it said it was also conducting an outside review of the Concordia grounding.

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