Francesco Schettino, who has earned the nickname ‘Captain Coward’ for abandoning his ship while passengers remained onboard, insisted at a court hearing regarding his conduct: “The passengers were rushing all over the decks trying to scramble into the lifeboats.

“I didn’t even have a lifejacket because I had given it to one of the passengers – I was trying to get them into the lifeboats in an orderly fashion.

“All of a sudden the boat listed between 60-70 degrees, I got trapped and ended up in one of the lifeboats. That’s why I was in there.”

The captain – who can be heard refusing to return to his ship in what appears to be a recording of a conversation between himself and the coastguard – added that he had “saved thousands of lives”.

Schettino’s latter claim is at odds with the now widely heard recording in which the coastguard orders the captain to get back onboard the cruise ship and co-ordinate the rescue operation, warning: “Listen, Schettino, perhaps you have saved yourself from the sea but I will make you look very bad. I will make you pay for this.”

Last night, a judge granted the captain release from prison to be placed under house arrest instead.

He is in custody on suspicion of multiple manslaughter, after he steered the ship too close to rocks, tearing a gash in the liner and causing it to sink.

Prosecutors said that his explanation for abandoning the ship – that he had fallen into a lifeboat by accident – was “curious to say the least”.

The death toll now stands at 11, with 24 still missing.

There are also concerns that 500,000 gallons of fuel could leak from the submerged liner and create an environmental disaster.

Image: Getty