July 11, 2012 at 6:36 AM ET
GIGLIO, Italy - The captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia has admitted he was distracted by a phone call at the time it capsized off Italy in January, killing 32 people - including two Americans.
Francesco Schettino gave his first interview on Tuesday night, after being released from house arrest by a judge.
He is accused of causing the accident by taking the liner too close to rocks near the island of Giglio, off Italy’s west coast – and of abandoning the liner while many passengers and crew were still aboard.
He told Italy’s Channel 5 he does not accept full blame for the wreck, but said: “I feel guilty for having been distracted.”
He was making a phone call to a man on shore – a retired captain he was in the process of saluting - when the accident happened, and that the navigation at that moment was under another officer's control.
He apologized to his countrymen in the interview, saying: “It is normal that I should say sorry, that I should apologize.”
He said he thought about the victims a lot, and became emotional when reminded of five-year-old Daiana Arlotti, the youngest to die. “This question devastates me, it is terrible... Let's leave it-- please.”
Schettino said he turned the ship abruptly, after realizing it would hit rocks, in order to save lives.
“In the end I managed to avoid a frontal impact,” he said.
He also insisted he did not intentionally abandon ship before everyone got off.
“The ground gave in below me, it was like the tremor of an earthquake, the floor gives in and what do you do?”
The Costa company, owned by Carnival, blames Schettino for taking the ship off course, then badly mishandling the aftermath.
Additional editing by Alastair Jamieson, msnbc.com in London.