Francesco Schettino: coward or conspiracy victim?

Devil and the deep blue sea: Schettino has been vilified for abandoning the sinking Costa Concordia. Picture: Getty
Devil and the deep blue sea: Schettino has been vilified for abandoning the sinking Costa Concordia. Picture: Getty
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The Costa Concordia’s captain may have disgraced his profession, but he is also a handy scapegoat for his masters, and for Italian pride

THE IMAGE of the sea captain as the embodiment of courage and honour; a towering figure who will guide his ship through stormy seas and stay on board until the bitter end, is etched on to the public consciousness.

The commanders of the Titanic, the Estonia and the Arandora Star all went down with their ships – as tradition dictates – with Edward Smith of the Titanic said to have plucked a little girl from the Atlantic Ocean and carried her to a boat moments before he succumbed to the icy waters.

Last week, however, Francesco Schettino, the captain of the ill-fated Costa Concordia, which ran aground on rocks near the island of Giglio on the west coast of Italy, single-handedly shattered the myth that those in charge of ships at sea are a uniquely stoic and self-sacrificing bunch.

In the days since the disaster unfolded – leaving 11 dead and 21 missing – the man dubbed Captain Coward has presented a very different picture of human spirit in the face of adversity to that portrayed in movies such as The Poseidon Adventure.

Schettino has been cast as a show-off and a bounder, who allegedly treated his ship like a Ferrari and abandoned his passengers to save his own skin. According to witnesses, not only did he cause the accident by sailing too close to the coast in order to “salute” a former crew member, he failed to face up to the scale of the crisis, refusing to sound a Mayday alert for more than an hour after the ship hit the rocks. Worse still, when the £400m ship began to list, he and senior members of his crew left in a lifeboat, an act so craven many Italian commentators say he has humiliated not only himself but the entire nation.

At the centre of the scandal are two recordings which cast a damning light on Schettino’s behaviour. In the first, the captain can be heard insisting the only problem on board is a power failure long after terrified passengers have phoned the coastguard to say the boat is in trouble; in the second, he snivels and prevaricates, while coastguard Gregorio De Falco orders him to get back on board and co-ordinate the rescue.

Schettino has piled further ignominy upon himself by claiming, to widespread derision, that he “tripped” into the lifeboat. Cast adrift by his company, vilified by the newspapers and under house arrest for multiple manslaughter, his maritime career is surely over.

But is Schettino being unfairly scapegoated? And is it even reasonable to expect those in charge of cruise ships to put everyone else’s life before their own?

After all, Schettino isn’t the first seafarer to have bailed out in a moment of panic. While Smith drowned with his passengers, the Titanic’s owner, Joseph Ismay, had no compunction about fleeing in a lifeboat as thousands around him died. And then there was Yiannis Avranas, the skipper of the Greek luxury liner Oceanos, which sank in rough seas off South Africa in 1991. Avranas fled, leaving a magician who had been performing on board to monitor rescue calls and another entertainer to calm passengers by playing Beatles songs on his guitar.

“When I order abandon ship, it doesn’t matter what time I leave,” Avranas said after all the passengers and crew had been plucked to safety. “Abandon is for everybody. If some people like to stay, they can stay.”

Already some Italian commentators are speculating Schettino is a handy fall-guy for Costa Cruises. Much of the criticism levelled at the captain hinges on the 68-minute gap between the boat hitting the rocks and the Mayday alert being sounded – a gap which allowed the boat to list to such an extent some of the lifeboats could not be launched. But it has emerged that between 9.50pm and 10.58pm, Schettino had three telephone conversations with the company’s marine operations director Roberto Ferrarini. Could pressure have been put on him to in a vain attempt to avoid a £25m compensation payout to passengers?

There are other unanswered questions too. Schettino has admitted deviating from his course – a move which Costa Cruises says was unauthorised. But evidence has emerged that the ship had made the dangerous manoeuvre at least once before, in August 2011, when it came within 230 metres of the island to mark the Notte di San Lorenzo – a fact that must have been known to the company.

Meanwhile, Moldovan dancer Domnica Cemortan, who Schettino was seen dining with around the time disaster struck, insists he was still on board at 11.50pm. She also claims the captain’s decision to guide the Concordia into shallow waters after her hull was holed saved thousands of lives.

“He [Schettino] does seem to have steered the boat on to the rocks so it wouldn’t sink in deep water,” agrees Alf Baird, professor of maritime business with Napier University’s Institute for Transport Research. “When the Herald of Free Enterprise – which, much like the Concordia, had water cascading into it – sank in Zeebrugge in 1987, it happened really quickly. It seems like what Schettino did make evacuation possible.”

Professor Baird believes it’s also possible Schettino would have been better placed to co-ordinate the rescue from another vessel. “There had been a power failure, so I don’t know what forms of communication he had,” he says. “The bridge would have hit the water quite quickly, so it would have been out of operation. I’m not sure how much he could have achieved sitting on the side of the hull with 4,000 other people.”

Whatever is said in Schettino’s defence, however, most people believe his decision to leave the Concordia besmirched a noble profession. Last week, other sea captains banded together to insist the majority of skippers would stay on board and oversee the rescue operation.

“I’m totally embarrassed by what he did,” said Jim Staples, from a 1,000ft cargo vessel he was captaining near New Orleans.

“He’s given the industry a bad name.” Jorgen Loren, chairman of the Swedish Maritime Officer’s Association, added: “It’s a matter of honour that the master is the last to leave. Nothing less will do in this profession.”

As the divers continue their search for the missing and fears grow that 2,300 tonnes of fuel oil will spill from the ship’s tank, the showdown between Schettino and De Falco is being depicted as a battle between good and evil, with many people sporting T-shirts bearing the face of De Falco and his words: “Va a bordo, Cazzo” – “Get back on board, prick”.

The daily newspaper Corriere della Sera put it this way: “Two men; two stories, one which humiliates us; one which redeems us.”

Though such statements may seem to trivialise the tragedy, they are testimony to the impact the captain’s behaviour has had on the psyche of a country already stereotyped as cowardly, and ridiculed over the antics of their former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. With his refusal to do his duty, Schettino has shamed Italians and sea captains alike. Experts may not yet have come up an action plan to recover the 100,000-tonne wreck, but the operation to salvage battered reputations is already under way. «