Francesco Schettino the captain of the luxury cruiser Costa Concordia, which ran aground off Italy's Tuscan coast, enters a Carabinieri car in Porto Santo Stefano, Italy.

The captain of the Costa Concordia has become the most hated man in Italy. Francesco Schettino, 52, is at the centre of a Facebook hate campaign after being squarely blamed for the cruise liner running aground.

Thousands have taken to the web to vent their fury at the so-called “Captain Coward”, who is now claimed to have “skimmed” past the Tuscan isle of Giglio not just to salute a retired officer but also to impress his head waiter’s family on shore.

Many scorned his decision not to remain with his stricken ship.

The official death toll rose to six yesterday when a man’s body was pulled from the tilting wreckage. The number of those still unaccounted for rose to 29 - 25 passengers and four crew.

Schettino, who faces up to 12 years in jail for manslaughter, will face court today after his company chiefs accused him of an ‘unauthorised and unapproved’ decision to sail so close to the eastern side of Giglio.

The £400million liner, with 4 200 passengers and crew, was sailing just 300 yards from the island’s rocky coast when it should have been at least four miles out to sea. It came to grief on Friday night after sustaining a 160ft gash in the port-side hull.

After swiftly escaping from the listing liner, Schettino - the Concordia’s skipper for six years - was arrested along with first officer Ciro Ambrosio. The captain was spotted wrapped in a blanket on his way to the shore at around 11.30pm - more than four hours before the evacuation of the vessel was completed and breaking the maritime tradition of remaining with his ship.

Coastguards are said to have told him to “get back on board your vessel’ once they realised he was safe on the island but he failed to do so. One Italian report said he hailed a taxi and said to the driver: “Get me as far away from here as possible”.

He has also been accused of dining with beautiful women as the liner crashed into rocks and of raiding the safe before jumping ship. Tuscan prosecutor Franco Verusio, who is leading the investigation, said: “Captain Schettino was in command. He was the one who ordered that course to be taken, at least according to what we have discovered. There was someone in particular that wanted to be signalled from the ship.”

Schettino gave the order for the doomed sail-by of the island as a “salute of respect” for former Costa commander Mario Palombo, whose parents are from Giglio, it is alleged.

The stunt - as passengers were enjoying dinner at 9.30pm on Friday - was apparently also a favour for the ship’s ma’tre d’ Antonello Tievoli, who lives on the island.

Italian news reports said that minutes before the Concordia crashed into an underwater reef just two hours into a seven-day Mediterranean cruise, Schettino told the head waiter: “Come and look, we are passing over your Giglio.” After his rescue, Tievoli is understood to have joked: “I never thought I would get dropped off at home.’

His 82-year-old father Giuseppe said his son had phoned him before the accident to say the crew would salute him by blowing the ship’s whistle as they passed by.

He said: “Antonello called and said that we should look out of the window at around 9.30pm because he would be on the ship and it would pass right by Giglio. All the ships do it but they never come that close - I was at the window with my wife and, as he said, the ship went past.”

Tievoli’s sister Patrizia, a teacher on the island, made a Facebook post 30 minutes before the disaster saying: “Shortly, the Costa Concordia will pass really, really close, a big hello to my brother who will disembark at Savona and finally get to enjoy some holiday.”

Tievoli, 46, has already been questioned by investigators while Palombo, who retired in 2006 because of ill health, is also expected to be interviewed.

But Palombo last night insisted the “nautical bow’ was not meant for him as he was not on the island at the time. “I have gone to the prosecutor’s office after I was dragged into all this. I’ve been made to feel responsible.”

The stunt of sailing past the island is said to have become something of a tradition for the Concordia. In August, it skirted Giglio sounding its whistle - prompting the mayor to send a congratulatory email to the captain for providing such a “spectacle to tourists”.

On Facebook yesterday, one contributor wrote: “Captain you have made a wrong manoeuvre - in memory of the men you have killed have at least the honour and good taste to admit your mistakes.”

Another said: “There is a lot of difference with a ship that crashed against an iceberg a century ago with the technological means given to ships today - and in addition to that there’s another difference. On the Titanic the captain remained in place until the end!’

The liner’s owners Costa Cruises have backtracked from their initial support of Schettino, accusing him of a “serious error of judgment’ by sailing too close to the shore. Chief executive Pier Luigi Foschi said: “We need to acknowledge the facts and we cannot deny human error.”

Last night Schettino’s lawyer said he was “overcome and wants to express his greatest condolences to the victims”. The captain’s wife Fabiola refused to open the door of the £175 000 apartment she shares with her husband and their 15-year-old daughter in the small seaside town of Meta di Sorrento, near Naples.

Close friend Perrusio Gaetano, 51, has known the under-fire skipper for more than 30 years and works as a cook with the same cruise line firm.

He said: “Franco is a good captain and something must have gone wrong technically with the ship and its positioning system for this to happen. I have sailed with him many times - and would sail with him again.” - Daily Mail