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Recording in cruise ship disaster casts captain in bad light

After the cruise ship Costa Concordia struck rocks, Capt. Francesco Schettino was reluctant to help with the evacuation on board, a recording shows.

January 17, 2012|By Sarah Delaney, Los Angeles Times
  • Francesco Schettino, captain of the Costa Concordia, leaves a courthouse in Grosseto, Italy.
Francesco Schettino, captain of the Costa Concordia, leaves a courthouse… (Alessandro La Rocca, LaPresse )

Reporting from Rome — As terrified passengers scrambled to avoid the icy waters, Capt. Francesco Schettino sat in a lifeboat on the phone weakly telling rescuers why he had abandoned his luxury cruise ship.

"Commander, I want to go on board, but it is simply that the other boat here … there are other rescuers," Schettino, commander of the grounded Costa Concordia, told Capt. Gregorio De Falco of the Italian coast guard. "It has stopped and is waiting."

De Falco, after repeatedly telling Schettino to get back on board, again issued his orders: "It has been an hour that you have been telling me the same thing. Now, go on board. Go on board! And then tell me immediately how many people there are there."

PHOTOS: Cruise ship runs aground off Italy

A tape recording of the exchange released Tuesday was the latest indictment of the captain's behavior a few days earlier during the chaotic evacuation of more than 4,200 people from the damaged ship, a floating city designed for pleasure, with its bright lights, discotheques, swimming pools and tennis courts.

Italians listened in fascinated horror to the conversation, in which De Falco repeatedly ordered Schettino to get back on board after Friday's accident off the coast of Tuscany.

On Tuesday, Schettino, 52, was placed under house arrest in his hometown of Meta di Sorrento after questioning before a judge. Chief Prosecutor Francesco Verusio of Grosseto, a city near the accident, has accused Schettino of making a reckless and inexcusable maneuver that brought the enormous liner so close to shore that rocks tore open the left side of the hull.

The death toll rose to 11 as rescue workers found five more bodies in the submerged stern after explosives experts used small charges to open unreachable areas of the ship lying on its side off the tiny tourist island of Giglio.

Authorities said they believed 24 of the 4,234 people who had been aboard were still missing. They said that number could change.

Schettino's lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, said the captain was distraught but believed that he had saved "hundreds if not thousands" of lives by maneuvering the damaged ship close to the island, allowing people to swim to shore or be rescued by local boats.

He denied that he had abandoned the ship, Leporatti said.

In the conversation played over and over by Italian television, radio and websites, De Falco tried to persuade Schettino to return to the ship to coordinate the evacuation.

"Listen, Schettino," De Falco says, almost as if he were talking to a child. "There are people trapped on board. Now you go with your boat under the prow on the starboard side. There is a pilot ladder. You will climb that ladder and go on board. You go on board and then you will tell me how many people there are. Is that clear? I'm recording this conversation, Cmdr. Schettino."

De Falco eventually says, "There are already bodies."

Schettino asks how many.

The infuriated officer says, "I don't know. … You are the one who has to tell me how many there are. Christ."

Schettino, according to reports, did not go back to the ship.

Prosecutors said Schettino made a series of incomprehensible decisions beginning with steering the 115,000-ton, 1,000-foot-long vessel within 300 yards of Giglio.

After the vessel struck rocks about 9:45 p.m., a blow felt and heard by passengers having dinner or watching a magic show, the ship's loudspeakers told guests that there was a power failure but that all was under control, passengers said.

There was a long delay before passengers were instructed to prepare for an evacuation, even though rocks had ripped a 76-yard gash in the hull and water rushed into the engine room, witnesses and crew members told Italian news media.

And according to other recorded ship-to-shore conversations published in Italian newspapers, Schettino repeatedly told the coast guard that the ship had experienced a power outage but that all was under control. It wasn't until nearly an hour later that Schettino reluctantly issued a Mayday, finally setting in motion the rescue operation.

PHOTOS: Cruise ship runs aground off Italy

News reports also said crew members, initially criticized in the media for an apparent lack of preparation in emergency procedures and chaotic management of the evacuation, took matters into their own hands and began the deployment of lifeboats before the captain declared an emergency.

The shipping company Costa Crociere, which owns the cruise liner, has blamed the entire incident on Schettino, saying that he violated company procedures and norms and steered outside the ship's programmed route.

Schettino's wife, Fabiola Russo, expressed her sorrow for the victims while asking for understanding regarding her husband's "human drama."

Delaney is a special correspondent.

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