Audio: Costa Concordia skipper "it's just a technical thing"
Amidst the chaotic events that led to the Costa Concordia disaster, one constant remained – the finger of blame continued to point to captain Francesco Schettino.
Mr Schettino, 52, who left his passengers and crew behind on the sinking vessel, was questioned yesterday at a court in the mainland town of Grosseto. He was released under house arrest and faces charges that could see him jailed for 15 years.
Investigators have accused him of multiple counts of manslaughter and abandoning ship before all of the survivors could be saved. At least 11 people died and up to 29 were still unaccounted for last night. Captain Schettino's arrest is expected to be upheld by a preliminary investigating judge.
Recordings of Mr Schettino's startling conversations with a shocked fellow seaman and a coastguard have revealed the disorder, incompetence and cowardice that doomed so many.
As terrified passengers tried to abandon the sinking cruise ship in the early hours of Saturday, its commander had already beaten most of his charges in the scramble for dry land. An incredulous and apoplectic captain of the Livorno coast guard, Gregorio Maria De Falco, can be heard on the tapes shrieking at Mr Schettino to "get back on board, for f**k's sake!"
The evening had started calmly enough. But catastrophe was on the cards the moment that Captain Schettino – who, according to Italian media reports, "drives his ship like a Ferrari" – decided on a special show-boating approach to the pretty island of Giglio, in order to salute a legendary local cruise liner captain, Mario Palombo. The stunt was even promoted on Facebook.
According to a transcript of the conversation between the captain and the coastguard, just minutes before the Costa Concordia hit a submerged rock at 9.45pm, Mr Schettino was making a phone call to the retired Mr Palombo, who lives on Giglio. "I'm going to salute you," he said, even though Mr Palombo was not on the island at the time.
The call was interrupted, apparently as the liner collided with rocks. At 9.49pm, Captain De Falco, aware that something was amiss – perhaps because panicking passengers were calling the emergency services – contacted the ship's bridge to ask what was happening. "Nothing, just a technical problem," said Mr Schettino, despite having steered his vessel over rocks that left a 50m gash in its side.
At 9.54pm Captain De Falco was back on the line, asking: "Concordia, we're calling to ask if everything is OK."
"Yes, it's just a technical thing," Capt Schettino replied.
This mendacious and possibly lethal misinformation was passed to the 3,200 passengers, who carried on eating and drinking when they should have been heading to lifeboats. Some of the crew demanded that the captain speed up the evacuation, but he appeared to do what many Italians resort to when the heat is on – and phoned his mother. "Mum, there's been a tragedy... but don't worry, I tried to save the passengers," he told her, before jumping ship.
At 12.42am, after a series of calls to Mr Schettino's mobile phone from the increasingly suspicious Mr De Falco, the ship's captain finally lets slip the phrase: "We can't go back aboard because the ship is slipping backwards."
"Captain, have you abandoned the ship?" asks the astonished official.
Mr Schettino lies, saying: "Of course not. How could I have abandoned the ship?"
The coastguard then says: "Now, go to the prow, raise the rope ladders and co-ordinate the evacuation. Tell us how many people are still on board: children, women, passengers, and the exact number in each category. Is that clear?"
Mr Schettino eventually replies that he is not keen to go back on board because it is dark and the Concordia is listing. "But do you realise it is dark and here we can't see anything," he says.
This only served to underline the plight in which he had left his passengers. It also produced a final, furious response from Mr De Falco. "Look Schettino, you may have saved yourself from the sea, but I'm going to see you get it... I'm going to make sure you're in real trouble. Get the f##k back on board!"
To underline his threat, Capt De Falco even tells the commander that he is recording his orders. Mr Schettino says: "Okay, I'm going." But he never does.
Instead, he appears to have spent the night in the harbourmaster's office in the little port of Giglio. A taxi-driver has reported that he picked him up at 11.30am and took him the 400 metres to the Bahamas Hotel. The hotel owner said Mr Schettino did not book in, but it is known that police detained him soon afterwards.
Yesterday, Mr Schettino's lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, denied that his client had abandoned ship, adding that he was "overcome and wants to express his greatest condolences to the victims".
He insisted that the captain's actions in anchoring the vessel at one end to swing it closer to the shore after the collision "saved the lives of thousands of people". "It could have been an enormous tragedy," Mr Leporatti said.
But even Costa Crocier, which owns the Costa Concordia, appears to have jettisoned its employee, having accused Capt Schettino of making an "inexplicable" error.
Transcript: The captain's shame
Port Authority (PA) "Schettino, listen to me, there are people trapped onboard, now you go back... you tell me if there are children, women or people that need assistance and you give me a number for each one of these categories is that clear? Look Schettino, you may have saved yourself from the sea but [we] will put you through a lot of trouble... Get back on board for f**k's sake."
Schettino "Commander, please."
PA "There are no 'pleases'. Get back on board!"
Schettino "I am not going because the other lifeboat is stopped."
PA "Don't make any more excuses... There are already bodies, Schettino."
Schettino How many bodies...?
PA I don't know... You are the one who has to tell me... Christ.
Schettino But... it is dark...
PA So what? You want go home? Get on that prow... and tell me what can be done, how many people there are and what their needs are. Now!