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'Captain Coward' forever linked to cruise ship disaster

Captain Francesco Schettino is seen in this undated file photo released on Jan . 18, 2012.


As they roll their eyes, Italians dismiss Capt. Francesco Schettino's erratic behaviour as a vergogna (shame) on Italy. Some are convinced that he must have been drunk or – ever so Italian – distracted by a woman; a blond Moldovan dancer was reportedly dining with the captain shortly before the disaster.

A few think he must be a suicide risk, given the opprobrium heaped upon him by Italians and the domestic and international media, who have dubbed him "Captain Coward."

Some former colleagues described him as a well-trained professional and defended him. Others said he was a hot-dog boat driver. Martino Pellegrino, a Costa Concordia officer, was damning about his boss. "If I had to make a comparison, we got the impression he would drive a bus like a Ferrari," he told reporters earlier this week.

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Capt. Schettino's penchant for showing off finally caught up with him Friday, when his ample professional training and experience failed him. It looks as if he panicked.

The commander of the wrecked Costa Concordia cruise ship is under house arrest and has not been formally charged, though he faces manslaughter charges. The death toll stands at 11, with no fewer than 20 still officially missing. More bad news came Thursday night when Italian environment minister Corrado Clini said the ship, lodged precariously on a rock ledge next to Tuscany's Giglio island, is at "high risk" of sinking.

On Friday, the ship shifted again on its rocky perch, forcing the supension of search and rescue operations. It was not clear if the movements registered overnight by onboard sensors were just vibrations as the Costa Concordia settles on the rocks or if the massive ocean liner is slipping off the reef.

But even if the captain is cleared of any criminal charges, he will forever be linked to a tragedy largely of his own making. Under questioning by investigators, he has already admitted he made a navigational error that slammed the ship onto the rocks last Friday evening.

What is now known is that, somewhere along the line, he began taking risks by going close to shore to "salute" people on the coast, the nautical form of the Top Gun-style fly-bys done by cocky aircraft carrier pilots. Capt. Schettino, 52, reportedly told investigators this week that he went very close to Giglio island several times before. Lloyds List, the shipping intelligence newspaper, reported that the Costa Concordia had sailed within 230 metres of Giglio in August, "slightly closer to the shore than where it subsequently hit the rocks on Friday."

The son of a mariner, he was born near Naples and attended the well-regarded nautical academy in nearby Piano di Sorrento. After graduation, he worked on a variety of tourist boats and private yachts and landed at Costa Crociere, the Italian subsidiary of Miami's Carnival Corp., the world's biggest cruise ship company, a little more than a decade ago.

Capt. Schettino became a cruise ship commander in 2006 and was given the helm of the 114,000-ton Costa Concordia.

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Stefano Stoppaccioli, the dean of students at the American University of Rome, worked at Costa Crociere between 2000 and 2004 and overlapped with Capt. Schettino on several cruise ships. He had no indication, he said, that the future captain of the Costa Concordia would take huge risks. "I sensed nothing unusual about him at all," he said. "He was professional when he was safety officer."

Safety was evidently not top of his mind a week ago. The ship hit the submerged rocks off Giglio at 9:42 p.m. Friday. If the miscalculation wasn't enough – Capt. Schettino later came clean on the grave navigational error – he compounded it with a series of bizarre acts and statements. At first, he said the rocks were uncharted when, in fact, they were marked. The early reports from bridge said the ship was suffering nothing more than a "blackout." In truth, the ship, crippled by an enormous gash in its hull, was listing and sinking.

But one of his instincts worked for him. After hitting the rocks, he did a U-turn and drove the ship onto the rocky ledge smack next to Giglio instead of heading for the mainland about 20 km to the east. A NATO naval captain based in Rome, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said "he made a good decision by stranding the ship at Griglio. He wouldn't have made it to the mainland and many more lives might have been lost."

There is little doubt Capt. Schettino left the ship before the last passengers and crew got off. At first he told investigators he stayed to the very end. In a recorded phone call between him and an Italian Coast Guard captain, Capt. Schettino makes desperate excuses to avoid going back on board.

Mark Palermo, a prominent psychiatrist in Rome, said that it appears that the captain "may indeed have suffered a bona fide panic attack. In times of danger, even in those who are accustomed to managing emergency situations, for a variety of reasons, there is a fight or flight response and he literally fled."

In spite of the botched cruise and evacuation, Capt. Schettino has his defenders. Katyia Keyvanian, a guest services manager who was aboard the ship, used Facebook to announce that the captain oversaw a model evacuation. "We evacuated 4,000 people in the dark, with the ship inclined on its side, in less than two hours," she wrote.

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To almost everyone else, Capt. Schettino will forever be a national embarrassment.

With a file from the Associated Press

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About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More

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