His Ship Still Aground, Captain Goes on Trial

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ROME -- He was the focus of Italians' rage and embarrassment 18 months ago, when he was accused of abandoning his ship after it ran aground and capsized off the Tuscan coast, killing 32 people. On Wednesday the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, will finally appear in a courtroom.

The proceedings had to be moved from the local courthouse to a theater in the Tuscan town of Grosseto to accommodate the 70 or so lawyers, more than 500 witnesses and any among the 4,200 survivors who participate, not to speak of 160 seats for the public and 120 for accredited journalists.

Captain Schettino became infamous the world over a few days after the wreck of his ship, the Costa Concordia, when a wiretapped conversation surfaced that indicated he was standing on a rock next to the vessel before the extremely chaotic evacuation was complete.

His dispute with a port authority official who tried to cajole him into getting back on board and taking command of the evacuation was played over and over again on Italian news outlets and Web sites. Captain Schettino admitted he was on the rock but said he was there because he had fallen overboard. Nevertheless, British newspapers called him "Captain Coward."

Captain Schettino, the only defendant in this trial, denies wrongdoing and has said that he took the vessel close to the shore only after the initial impact, a maneuver that he says saved many lives. If found guilty, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

Five other defendants, a company official and four crew members, are accused of complicity in the shipwreck and manslaughter, charges that carry potential prison terms of less than five years. Their expedited trials will begin Saturday.

"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."

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."

In April, the Concordia's operator, Costa Cruises, a unit of the Carnival Corporation, agreed to pay the state $1.3 million to resolve a number of minor charges against its employees. However, the company is facing civil suits from passengers and crew members who have refused compensation -- about 20 percent of those on board -- though settlements are still being reached in Italy and abroad.

In the meantime, patience is running out on the island of Giglio, where operations to remove the 54,000-ton vessel could be further delayed by the Italian authorities.

Local residents complain that the hulking shipwreck has crushed the island's economy, which depends on tourism. And there is growing nervousness that the salvage operation, already recognized as among the most complex ever undertaken, may be even more complicated than anticipated.

The vessel was supposed to be removed before this summer, but the difficulties of drilling holes into granite in 35 feet of water, in addition to an extraordinarily long and rough winter, forced salvage workers to modify the original timetable.

For the past year, nearly 500 divers, technicians and engineers have worked to stabilize the ship using anchors and cement-filled bags. A submerged platform was erected to rotate the ship onto, and most of the 200-plus-foot gash in the vessel's side has been welded shut.

But it has been slow going.

"The Concordia is like a patient with spinal damage," said Nick Sloane, a salvage master. "Any move is risky, and we need to support the head and the feet."

Mr. Sloane, an engineer with Titan Salvage of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and his team are preparing for the so-called parbuckling operation, an 8- to 10-hour process that will try to lift the vessel upright in one day and then float it away.

The operation is risky, a one-shot deal, he said, because if the attempt fails, the ship cannot be put back on the seabed to begin from scratch.

"We are quite confident in the whole operation," which is scheduled to take place in September, Mr. Sloane said in a phone interview. "But until we get it upright, we can't know the damage and can't say how fast we can get it out. We have to keep in mind that the parbuckling will cause some damage, too."

Last week, the director of Italy's Civil Protection Agency, Franco Gabrielli, voiced concern over the uncertainties surrounding the ambitious project and suggested that the removal operations could be postponed to next year.

That has not gone down well with the islanders.

"When I heard Gabrielli's words, I felt like a boxer in the corner," said Giglio's mayor, Sergio Ortelli. "I am as worried as he is, but I demand at least some clarity on the timing. We need transparency. We have already lost a season, and that was inevitable; the second should not have been lost, and now we are talking about a third one?"

The experts' report is expected by the end of the month, and then the authorities will make a decision.

In the meantime, the environmental and economic impact on the island shows no sign of abating. Last year, Giglio attracted a significant number of day-trippers, eager to catch a glimpse of the shipwreck. But this year, the novelty has worn off. The salvage vessels are hardly a tourist draw.

"There are dozens of ships and pontoons around the rocks; it's a working site," said Massimiliano Botti, owner of a bar and restaurant on Giglio Porto quay, who expressed fear that the salvage operations would continue indefinitely. "If they stop the works for nine more months, what are they going to do? Leave it like that? We need certainties, exactly the opposite of what we are getting."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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