Italian shipwreck captain in the dock


Sat, Oct 20, 2012 - Page 7

The captain of the sunken ship Costa Concordia, Francesco Schettino, defended his actions at a pre-trial hearing on Thursday, recalling the terrifying night of the cruise ship tragedy that claimed 32 lives.

Schettino went through “step by step the orders he had given in the moments before and after the crash and why he had given them,” a participant at the closed-door hearing in Grosseto in central Italy said.

The captain, widely attacked for apparently abandoning the vessel before the evacuation was complete, said he had given clear orders to the helmsman in the moments before the ship hit a reef, the participant said on condition of anonymity.

The hearing was the latest in a series that began on Monday and will pave the way for a trial expected next year into the Jan. 13 ship disaster — which happened with 4,229 people from dozens of countries on board.

Some survivors have attended the hearings and said they were still traumatized nine months after the crash near the Tuscan island of Giglio, which sparked a panicked night-time evacuation from the sinking cruise ship.

A total of 10 people are being investigated, including Schettino and six other crew members, as well as three managers from ship owner Costa Crociere, which is part of the world’s biggest cruise operator, US-based Carnival.

Nobody has been formally charged with any crimes so far related to the disaster. Investigators have until January, a year after the shipwreck, to press charges.

The drama of the upcoming trial began to emerge this week, with a clear stand-off between Schettino and Costa Crociere over responsibilities.

“Many things were said today in Schettino’s defence which frankly were not reliable,” Costa Crociere’s lawyer Marco De Luca said on Thursday, adding that the captain was trying to blame others who had been with him on the bridge that night.

“The navigation code, the procedural code, international organizations of every kind state the responsibility for every decision lies with the captain. Offloading responsibility for the most delicate decisions and everything that followed onto his subordinates does not seem very honourable,” he said.

One of the key questions to work out will be why the order to evacuate the ship was given such a long time after the crash — a delay that investigators see as a potentially fatal factor in the tragedy.

The sessions have focused on a report by technical experts who analyzed data recordings, orders given by the captain and phone conversations.

A copy of the report put much of the blame for the accident on Schettino, saying he had tried “an extremely risky maneuver”.

The report found that Schettino ordered a change in the ship’s course to carry out a “salute” to Giglio — a seafaring tradition in Italy — and arrived on the bridge when the liner was only two nautical miles from the island.

It said that fellow officers failed to warn the captain that the ship was too close to the shore and travelling too fast and that the helmsman mistakenly steered right instead of left moments before the impact.