How a cocky captain trying to impress pals sunk his ship
SETTING off on its regular voyage from the port of Civitavecchia near Rome, it had become traditional for the captain of the Costa Concordia to salute locals on the island of Giglio with a blast on the ship's siren.
On Friday evening, islanders gathered as usual along the rocky shoreline to greet the huge vessel as it sailed along its customary route past the island's picturesque port.
But, rather than passing the island several miles out to sea as expected, locals were stunned to see the ship just a few hundred yards offshore and perilously close to its notorious rocky outcrops, known as Le Scole.
At around 9.30pm, just as many of the 3,200 passengers were sitting down to dinner, a huge bang shattered the relaxed atmosphere of the evening.
Minutes later the 114,500-ton vessel was plunged into darkness as the power failed.
In fact, the ship had passed so close to Giglio's shoreline -- possibly to within 150m , according to some estimates from islanders -- that it had struck the rocks, tearing the hull beneath the waterline. Within an hour, the captain was forced to give the order to abandon ship and a chaotic evacuation began.
The question is now why the Costa Concordia, which apparently travels the same route every week, managed to veer off course and so close to the island's treacherous coastline.
The ship's owner, Costa, yesterday night insisted that the vessel had been following the same route as always, while Francesco Schettino, the ship's captain, insisted he had been a "safe" 300m from the reef and his charts had shown no underwater rocks. He also said the ship's state-of-the-art navigation equipment had failed to warn of a problem.
Some islanders, however, told a different story, saying they had never seen the ship come so close to the shore.
The theory being examined by prosecutors is that Capt Schettino's attempt to honour the tradition of the Giglio salute could be to blame. Reports suggested that one of the ship's senior crew members has a friend in the Italian Merchant Navy who lives on the island, and wanted to get extra close before sounding the greeting.
There were also claims that a similarly close "sail-past" last year had prompted the local mayor to send a congratulatory email to the captain.
Sergio Ortelli, the mayor of Giglio, explained: "Costa ships often pass close to the island -- tourists and locals gather on the jetty to see the ships go by. We light up the Saracen tower [a stone tower built to spot pirate raids during medieval times]. It's a great sight."
But Italo Arienti, a 54-year-old sailor who has worked on the ferry service between Giglio and the Italian mainland for more than a decade, said: "This was too close, too close."
Franco Verusio, the procurator of Grosseto who is leading the investigation into the disaster, said questions remained as to why the ship had been so close to shore.
Speaking for the first time in detail yesterday, Capt Schettino blamed the accident on an undetected reef. "Even though we were sailing along the coast with the Tourist Navigation System, I firmly believe that the rocks were not detected.
"The ship was not heading forwards but sideways as if underwater there was this rock projection. I don't know whether it was detected or not, but on the nautical chart it was marked at about 100 to 150m from the rocks and we were about 300m from the shore more or less; we should not have hit it," he said.
But maritime experts have called into question his explanation, insisting that 300m was still far too close.
Captain Syamantak Bhattacharya, a maritime academic based at the University of Plymouth, said: "To hear talk of being 300m from dangerous rocks is very worrying. In my long career I have never heard people talk about such situations in terms of metres, it is always in terms of miles."
Some maritime experts also criticised the captain for attempting to turn the ship around and bring it into port once he realised the vessel was taking on too much water and could be in trouble.
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