Captain Francesco Schettino, the infamous “Captain Coward” of the Costa Concordia, is finally going to trial in Italy. Schettino is accused of abandoning his ship after it capsized after running aground off the Tuscan coast; he faces up to 20 years in prison.
On January 13, 2012, Schettino was in command of the Costa Concordia, a 2006 ship carrying 4,200 crewmembers and passengers. At 951 feet in length and more than 114,000 gross tonnage, it was believed to be the largest cruise ship flying the Italian flag.
Designed to be safely navigated at a maximum speed at 23 knots, the captain of the Concordia was known to be a daredevil who handled ships “like a Ferrari driver”. Martino Pellegrino, a former captain and colleague of Schettino’s opined, “I’ve always had my reservations about Schettino. He was too exuberant. A daredevil. More than once I had to put him in his place.” (dailymail.co.uk)
While en route to Savona, the captain deviates from the ship’s scheduled course and travels too close to the shoreline of the Italian island Giglio. The Concordia hits a rock formation producing a 165-foot gash in the hull, causing it to take on water.
Schettino signals a “mayday” triggering the abandonment of the ship and the 4,200 passengers and crew; however, there is some controversy as to when he notified authorities. Additionally, it is believed the captain voluntarily left the ship before it was free of all passengers.
The captain was on shore with harbor officials when he made claims that he fell overboard into a lifeboat after the ship began to list and was unable to return to help rescue passengers. In audio tapes that were made public after initial hearings into the matter, the Italian public became enraged by his excuses.
“The passengers were rushing all over the decks trying to scramble into the lifeboats. I didn’t even have a life jacket because I had given it to one of the passengers – I was trying to get them into the lifeboats in an orderly fashion. All of a sudden, the boat listed between 60-70 degrees. I tripped and ended up in one of the lifeboats. That’s why I was in there,” Schettino explained to the magistrate.
Schettino became known as “Captain Coward” when his defenses were repeated by media outlets in Europe.
This week, the captain will have a chance to defend himself publicly for abandoning his ship and the loss of 32 lives that day. The proceedings had to be moved to a larger theater from the local courthouse in order to house the enormity of the story; the saga is expected to draw 70 lawyers, over 500 witnesses, 160 seats for the public, any of the 4,200 survivors are welcome and 120 journalists.
Captain Schettino is the only person on trial for manslaughter. However, there are five others that will go on trial beginning Saturday for charges of complicity in the shipwreck. A company official and four crewmembers could receive terms of less than five years in an expedited trial for their role in the matter.
“The mistakes of the crew members influenced the accident,” said the chief prosecutor of Grosseto, Francesco Verusio, in a telephone interview. “But they are not the main actors here. The captain is the one who bears the heaviest responsibility. He was navigating at 16 knots an hour with no route, at night, by the stars. That’s way too fast so close to shore.” (nytimes.com)
Attorneys for Schettino are asking for a plea deal for the captain. While it is merely a formality, and his attorneys believe they will be told ‘no’, they have asked for a three-year, five-month sentence in exchange for a plea of guilt.
“Francesco Pepe, one of Captain Schettino’s lawyers, argues that his client thought he had set the ship at a safe distance from the shore and that miscommunication with the Indonesian helmsman could have played a role in the accident. ‘The captain trusted the bridge team,’ Mr. Pepe said. ‘When he realized the danger, he tried to veer, but the helmsman did not veer in the right direction.’” (nytimes.com)
“Captain Coward” is not the first captain to abandon his ship or his passengers, Captain Vilhjalmur Stefansson of the Karluk abandoned his ship in the early 1900’s, not caring if the rest of his crew perished in the bitter cold; and Yiannis Avranas abandoned the Greek cruise liner Oceanos and her passengers stating, “When I give the order abandon ship, it doesn’t matter what time I leave. If some people want to stay, they can stay.”
It was not immediately clear when a ruling might come on the Costa Concordia’s captain.
By Dawn Cranfield
US News Special Correspondent