Inside story of Captain Coward who fled sinking ship and left 3,200 behind
AS further details emerged yesterday of the chaotic events that led to the Costa Concordia disaster, one constant remained -- the blame continued to fall squarely (many would say fairly) on the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino.
Recordings of Capt Schettino's startling conversations with a shocked fellow seaman and a coastguard have revealed the disorder, incompetence and cowardice that doomed so many.
As terrified passengers tried to abandon the sinking cruise ship in the early hours of Saturday, its commander had already beaten most of his charges in the scramble for dry land.
An incredulous and apoplectic captain of the Livorno coastguard, Gregorio Maria De Falco, can be heard on the tapes shrieking at Mr Schettino to "get back on board, for f***'s sake!"
The evening had started calmly enough. But catastrophe was on the cards the moment that Capt Schettino -- who, according to Italian media reports, "drives his ship like a Ferrari" -- decided on a special show-boating approach to the pretty island of Giglio, in order to salute a legendary local cruise liner captain, Mario Palombo. The stunt was even promoted on Facebook. According to a transcript of the conversation between the captain and the coastguard, just minutes before the Costa Concordia hit a submerged rock at 9.45pm, Capt Schettino was making a phone call to the retired Capt Palombo, who lives on Giglio.
"I'm going to salute you," he said, even though Capt Palombo was not on the island at the time.
The call was interrupted, apparently as the liner collided with rocks. At 9.49pm, Capt De Falco, aware that something was amiss -- perhaps because panicking passengers were calling the emergency services -- contacted the ship's bridge to ask what was happening. "Nothing, just a technical problem," said Capt Schettino, despite having steered his vessel over rocks that left a 50-metre gash in its side.
At 9.54pm Captain De Falco was back on the line, asking: "Concordia, we're calling to ask if everything is okay."
"Yes, it's just a technical thing," Capt Schettino replied.
This mendacious and possibly lethal misinformation was passed to the 3,200 passengers, who carried on eating and drinking when they should have been heading to lifeboats. Some of the crew demanded that the captain speed up the evacuation, but he appeared to do what many Italians resort to when the heat is on -- and phoned his mother. "Mum, there's been a tragedy... but don't worry, I tried to save the passengers," he told her, before jumping ship.
At 12.42am, after a series of calls to Capt Schettino's mobile phone, the ship's captain finally lets slip the phrase: "We can't go back aboard because the ship is slipping backwards."
"Captain, have you abandoned the ship?" asks the astonished official.
Mr Schettino lies, saying: "Of course not. How could I have abandoned the ship?"
The coast guard then says: "Now, go to the prow, raise the rope ladders and co-ordinate the evacuation. Tell us how many people are still on board: children, women, passengers, and the exact number in each category. Is that clear?"
Capt Schettino eventually replies that he is not keen to go back on board because it is dark and the Concordia is listing.
This produced a final, furious response from Capt De Falco. "Look Schettino, you may have saved yourself from the sea, but I'm going to see you get it... I'm going to make sure you're in real trouble. Get the f*** back on board!"
"Okay, I'm going," Capt Schettino says, but he never does.
Capt Schettino's lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, denies that his client had abandoned ship, adding that he was "overcome and wants to express his greatest condolences to the victims". But even Costa Crocier, which owns the Costa Concordia, appears to have jettisoned its employee, having accused Capt Schettino of making an "inexplicable" error.