Nation that went down with a ship

Italians fear being lumped with the Costa Concordia’s skipper.


Even Hollywood at its cheesiest would be wary of cramming such a clutch of omens into one script.
When the cruise liner Costa Concordia was launched in 2006, the champagne bottle failed to break against its side, causing gasps of dismay from onlookers.
When its captain, Francesco Schettino, was interviewed a year ago, he said, “I wouldn’t like to be in the role of the captain of the Titanic.” Last week, its passengers included Valentina Capuano, whose grandmother survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 but whose great-uncle, a waiter on the ship, did not.
When the Costa Concordia hit rocks and foundered last Friday night, it was dinner time and the band was playing the love song from the film Titanic.
Within an hour, disaster movie scenes were playing out in the dark winter waters near the tiny port of the island of Giglio, off the coast of Tuscany in Italy’s north-west.
Francis Servel, a 71-year-old Frenchman, gave his wife his lifejacket because she could not swim. He jumped into the water and cried out to encourage her in. Nicole Servel, 61, managed to get to shore but her husband was swept away and has not been found. “The last thing I heard him say was that I would be fine. Then I never saw him again,” she says. “I am angry because there was no boat for us and there was no one to save my husband. I owe my life to him.”
Another Frenchwoman, Beatrice Micheaud, 58, and her 61-year-old husband, clung to the side of a life-raft for more than an hour. “We … kept lifting our heads to shout to ask to be taken on board but the people in the raft didn’t hear us, or didn’t want to hear us. We were exhausted.”
The long-haired drummer in the ship’s band, Giuseppe Girolamo, is among the 21 still missing (11 are confirmed dead). Girolamo had a place in one of the lifeboats but gave it up to a child.
It is not the stories of courage, selflessness and tenacity that have captured Italy’s imagination, however, but the actions – and inaction – of the man at the helm: Francesco Schettino, apparently a captain of skill but a deeply flawed personality now undone by his own hubris. The over-reaching Icarus flew too close to the sun; the arrogant Schettino, convinced of his superlative navigational ability, sailed too close to the rocks.
For both, the crash back to reality was devastating. Schettino has become a national figure of shame not just for having crashed the ship as part of an ego trip but for allegedly having committed the captain’s mortal sin: abandoning his ship and escaping to safety in a lifeboat while hundreds of passengers were still struggling on board.
A coast guard commander, frustrated when Schettino resisted his orders to return to the ship and oversee evacuation, was recorded roaring at Schettino, “Get on board, for f—‘s sake!” He demanded that Schettino tell him how many women and children needed help. Within hours of that exchange being broadcast, Italians were wearing mocking T-shirts with “Vada a bordo, cazzo!”, and the phrase became Twitter’s top-trending Italian hashtag.
Newspaper commentators were quick to pounce on the damage to the national standing — and the allegory of the shipwreck with Italy’s broader troubles as it comes close to the reef of the euro zone crisis, among other problems.
“We had just come out of the tunnel of bunga bunga,” Caterina Soffici wrote in a blog for the left-leaning Il Fatto Quotidiano. “We were just drawing that little relieved breath that would enable us to toil again up the hill to international credibility. But [now] … we’ve gone straight into the Titanic nightmare [and] Italy is once again the laughing stock of foreign newspapers.”
Writing for Silvio Berlusconi’s paper Il Giornale, Cristiano Gatti cringed at the world taking delight in an image of “the same old rascally Italians: those unreliable cowards who turn and run in war and flee like rabbits from the ship, even if they are in command”.
But Gatti and others pointed out that the story did have heroes. Schettino might have been in a lifeboat with his first and second officers at the height of the crisis but an off-duty ship’s captain stayed and managed the evacuation, along with Schettino’s junior officers.
But the man who has come to stand for everything Schettino failed to be that night is actually the coastguard commander, Gregorio de Falco, whose enraged demands that Schettino live up to his responsibilities have become legend.
Schettino, in his early 50s, is a handsome man with a small pot belly, a deep tan, dark hair and blue eyes with lashes that curl.
He comes from a family of several generations of seafarers and began his career on ferry boats before becoming a captain in 2006. He was a controlling, perhaps even narcissistic commander, seen to have had a stellar rise in the cruise industry.
One of the officers on board the Costa Concordia, Martino Pellegrino, told La Repubblica newspaper: “If I had to make a comparison, we got the impression that he would drive a bus like a Ferrari.” Pellegrino also said Schettino was an “authoritarian” who was often “inflexible”.
One of his former commanders, Mario Palombo, told reporters: “I’ve always had my reservations about Schettino. It’s true, he was my second-in-command, but he was too exuberant. A daredevil. More than once I had to put him in his place.”
On the night of the shipwreck, Schettino told an investigating magistrate this week, he took the liner near Giglio’s rocky coast because he wanted to give a “salute” to Palombo, who lived on the island. Cocky, he navigated without using charts.
“It’s true that the salute was for Commodore Mario Palombo, with whom I was on the telephone … I made a mistake in the approach.
“I was navigating by sight because I knew the depths well and I had done this manoeuvre three or four times. But this time I ordered the turn too late and I ended up in water that was too shallow,” he said.
About 9.30pm, the ship hit a rocky outlet called Le Scole, which tore open a gash in the port side of the hull. Schettino said: “I don’t know why it happened. I was a victim of my instincts.”
Actually, the 11 dead and 21 missing were the real victims of his instincts. And his instincts, once the ship struck rocks with a shuddering groan, remained poor.
His initial reaction seems to have been denial. The coastguard, alerted by a passenger’s mobile phone call, contacted him twice to ask if the ship was all right. Twice, he denied there was a serious problem.
On the decks below, there was panic. Cabins were plunged into darkness. Drinks slid off tables, plates smashed. An English crew member, Rose Metcalf, said: “It was just terrifying … people were white, people were crying, screaming.” Video footage shows children shrieking “mummy!” and “daddy!”
But Schettino announced an electrical fault and said it was not serious. James Thomas, who had been working as an entertainer on the ship, said the staff then heard two short blasts followed by alternate tones, “which means there is a leak on board and so the crew were divided, very much so. A lot of people said, ‘No, just tell everyone to stay calm, that’s what we’ve been told to say.’ But then other people took the initiative and said, ‘OK, let’s tell everyone to stay calm but hand over lifejackets.”‘
It was only at 10.30pm that a reluctant Schettino, under pressure from the coastguard, finally sent a mayday. The vessel was then listing 20 degrees.
It was another 20 minutes before he gave the order to abandon ship, but it seems that some of his junior officers defied his inaction and began lowering boats before he made the decision. The only passengers who recognised the abandon-ship signal — seven blasts of the horn — were those who had sailed on earlier cruises, as this shipload had not had its emergency drill.
Passengers said there was almost no help from crew with the evacuation. Metcalf recalled: “We were literally throwing each other. We were creating human chains to try and pass people over gaps that, if they dropped down, there was no recovery from. What was vertical was becoming horizontal.”
Discipline broke down among the crew and many passengers reported that it was waiters, chefs and entertainers who helped with the evacuation. Englishwoman Sandra Rogers, 62, later told the Daily Mail: “There was no ‘women and children first’ policy. There were big men, crew members, pushing past us to get into the lifeboats. It was disgusting.”
She said the men had knocked her and her two seven-year-old granddaughters. “And when we finally got into a lifeboat, people, grown men, were trying to jump into the boat. I thought, ‘If they land in here, we are going to capsize.”‘
The captain was in a lifeboat himself by 11.40pm, although the last passengers were not evacuated until 3am. He claims this was an accident.
During questioning this week, Schettino is reported to have said: “The passengers were pouring on to the decks, taking the lifeboats by assault. I didn’t even have a lifejacket because I had given it to one of the passengers. I was trying to get people to get into the boats in an orderly fashion. Suddenly, since the ship was at a 60 to 70 degree angle, I tripped and I ended up in one of the boats.”
The judge questioning him, Valeria Montesarchio, said Schettino had not made “any serious attempt” to return to the vessel or “even close to it”.
This was despite the furious bollocking he received from the coast-guard commander, Gregorio de Falco, who was appalled when Schettino told him he was in a lifeboat while hundreds of people were still aboard. De Falco ordered him back to the bridge, saying, “Captain. This is an order. Now I am in command. You have declared the abandoning of a ship and are going to co-ordinate the rescue from the bridge. What do you want to do? Go home?”
When Schettino protested that the ship was tilted, de Falco said: “There are people who are coming down the ladder on the bow. Go back in the opposite direction, get back on the ship, and tell me how many people there are and what they have on board. Clear? Tell me if there are children, women and what kind of help they need. And you tell me the number of each of these categories. Is that clear?
“Look, Schettino, perhaps you have saved yourself from the sea but I will make you look very bad. I will make you pay for this. Dammit!”
But his lawyer claimed Schettino “saved thousands” with his final manoeuvre, bringing the ship closer to shore to make evacuation easier, and that getting back on board was impossible. “You try and see if you could get back on a vessel in that condition,” Bruno Leporatti said.
“You need a helicopter.”
It was Roberto Bosio, the off-duty captain from a sister ship travelling on the liner as a passenger, who stayed behind to man the bridge after it was abandoned. Two other Italian officers also stayed to try to bring order to the chaos.
Afterwards, Bosio was scathing about Schettino: “Only a disgraceful man would have left all those passengers on board. It was the most horrible experience of my life, a tragedy, a heartache that I will carry with me forever … don’t call me a hero. I and the others with me just did our duty. We looked each other in the eyes for a second and then we just got on with it.”
The next day, Schettino left the harbour master’s office at 11.30am. He took a taxi a short distance to a Giglio hotel. Driver Ottavio Brizzi told reporters: “He didn’t say very much apart from asking me where he could buy some dry socks. He looked very cold and scared — he looked like a beaten dog.”
Schettino has been savaged since. He has been released from jail but is under house arrest and faces two police inquiries: one into his changing the route and one into the evacuation of the ship. He could receive up to 12 years in jail if convicted of manslaughter and abandoning his ship before his passengers did.
La Stampa newspaper said in an editorial Italy had had only two months to restore its international reputation since technocrat Mario Monti replaced the buffoonery of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi: “Two months to forget the worst of ourselves: the superficiality, the carelessness, the pomposity, the abdication of responsibility.
“And then, with a single nudge of the rudder, Captain Schettino has sunk our international reputation, along with his ship.
“… We are looking at a type of Italian that we cannot pretend not to recognise: more full of himself than sure of himself. One who does stupid things for the sake of having fun and seeks to hide them with the mantra, ‘everything’s OK, no problem’.”
Schettino’s wife and family have spoken out in his defence, and they were joined by members of his local town, including his priest, Don Gennaro Starita, who told parishioners he was “really angry” about the way Schettino had been portrayed.
“He has been pilloried by the media,” he said. “Humanly speaking, they have killed him. It’s a shame. There are so many dead already, why do we want another?”
The debate is now moving to how to deal with the vast wreckage of what is tipped to be the most expensive insured disaster in maritime history.
Schettino is likely to find himself wrong on yet one more point. In the newspaper interview he gave last year, he was asked about what impact the sinking of the Titanic had on people’s perceptions of ship safety at the time. He said: “Luckily, people quickly forget tragedies.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.