Two years after an Italian coast guard officer told him to “Get back on board, dammit!” captain Francesco Schettino has finally made a reappearance on the Costa Concordia, which capsized off the island of Giglio with the loss of 32 lives.
Schettino was dubbed “Captain Coward” after he smashed the ship into rocks in January 2012 and escaped to the shore, leaving thousands of passengers struggling to flee as the vessel keeled over in shallow water.
Now on trial for manslaughter and abandoning the 114,000-tonne ship to its fate, he was allowed to take part yesterday in a court-approved inspection of the wrecked vessel, which he hopes will pin some of the blame for the disaster on the ship’s operator, Costa Crociere.
Dressed in a leather jacket and sunglasses, Schettino said before the inspection he was not a “coward” but a “gentleman”, adding he had returned to the Mediterranean island to “find the truth” and “honour the dead”.
Schettino tore a 160ft hole in the hull of the Costa Concordia while attempting a “sail past” at Giglio before allegedly dithering over whether to abandon ship as the vessel took on water and drifted on to rocks.
As the ship toppled over, Schettino claims he “slipped” into a lifeboat and headed for dry land, ignoring instructions from the coast guard officer to get back on board and help the 4,200 passengers and crew evacuate.
“It was like a road accident,” Schettino said. “You stay on the pavement and call for rescue. I was co-ordinating the rescue from land.”
That explanation did not go down well with locals, who treated his return to the island on Tuesday with hostility, according to deputy mayor Mario Pellegrini, who earned praise for clambering on board the vessel and helping passengers escape two years ago.
“I think it would have been better if Schettino hadn’t held court on the island for three days,” he said yesterday.
Giglio mayor Sergio Ortelli said many of the passengers who survived had written to him calling Schettino’s visit “shameful”, while Michelina Suriano, a lawyer representing passengers, said: “Schettino should have got back on board that dramatic night, not today.”
The Concordia was pulled upright last year on to undersea platforms in an unprecedented salvage operation and is due to be floated off in June and towed to a shipyard for scrap.
Schettino is standing trial alone after fellow officers and a Costa Crociere official plea-bargained to get short sentences last year for their role in the crash.
But Schettino’s lawyers said they were hoping the visit by experts to the ship yesterday would shed light on Costa’s possible responsibility for the breakdown of the ship’s emergency generator, which was essential after the main engines became waterlogged.
“This is fundamental because the generator would have helped the release of the lifeboats and worked the pumps, shifting the water from one side of the ship to the other to counter the tipping of the ship,” Francesco Pepe, a lawyer representing Schettino, said.
Crew members have told the trial how they could only briefly get the generator to work by shoving a screw driver into it.
Italian consumer group Codacons, which is representing passengers, has blamed the malfunctioning generator for the death of four passengers who were trapped in a stalled lift, although prosecutor Franco Verusio has denied any deaths could be linked to the generator.
Prosecutors have meanwhile opened an investigation into two Costa Crociere employees who boarded the ship without permission and are suspected of tampering with evidence.