Italy’s Cruise Accident

Costa Concordia Shipwreck Comes to Italian Court

As crews struggle with the ship’s remains and seek two still-missing passengers, the Italian cruise liner’s feckless captain and his officers are facing the legal consequences.

10.13.12 8:45 AM ET

The massive carcass of the Costa Concordia cruise ship is still rusting and rotting off the Tuscan island of Giglio nine months after it struck an outcropping and ran aground in what is one of the largest passenger shipwrecks of all time. Thirty-two of the 4,200 people onboard were killed in the disaster, including two Americans from Minnesota. Two bodies—those of an Indian waiter and a Sicilian woman—have yet to be recovered, still reportedly pinned between the ship and the rocks it rests on.

The crippled ship, which once looked colossal against the tiny island, is now dwarfed by giant platforms and a rig normally used to drill oil.  Immense cranes carry workers from the platforms to the ship and dip into the vessel’s belly, securing it from within and occasionally pulling out loose debris. In a surreal scene, dozens of tan mesh sun chairs still hang perilously over the railings on the top deck, which is now perpendicular to the sea. Occasionally one falls off and splashes into the water below. Inside the ship, the staterooms are filled with passengers’ belongings. Eventually, each locked safe will be removed and returned to the passenger who had rented the room—or to their survivors. Only the erstwhile captain Francesco Schettino’s possessions have been removed from his suite, including the luggage of a young Moldavian ballet dancer who was on the bridge when the crash occurred.

Schettino—along with eight others, including the Concordia’s first and second officers as well as crisis-management officials from the Costa Crociere company, which owned the ship—are facing indictment for multiple manslaughter and other crimes when a mainland court in Grosseto reconvenes Oct. 15. Judges in the preliminary hearing will hear evidence from experts who have analyzed the ship’s black box. The captain, who was released from house arrest last summer and photographed sailing his private boat off the Amalfi coast throughout the summer,  has confirmed that he will be in court “to show my face to my accusers.”

His grave errors are indisputable, including his own admission that he took the 114,500-ton ship within a few hundred feet of the island to perform a maritime salute and as favor to the head waiter, whose sister posted a Facebook update foretelling the fly-by moments before the crash. The captain also waited a full 45 minutes before giving the order to abandon ship, while the vessel was already listing at nearly 80 degrees and passengers were scrambling to use walls as floors and water poured into the corridors. His defense has always been that the company ordered him to change course, and anyway, if not for his expert navigational skills, far more people would have perished. In an “only in Italy moment” this month, Schettino even filed a lawsuit against Costa Crociere for wrongful dismissal, saying he wanted back wages and his job back.

Costa Crociere, which is owned by American firm Carnival, has not responded to Schettino’s claims that he was fired without cause. Instead, it has maintained that Schettino acted alone in deviating from the planned route, and that he then misled them about the gravity of the incident in the moments after the crash. Costa Crociere claims that when the captain reported the accident, he asked the company for a barge and a couple of helicopters, when in fact by then he knew that the ship’s hull had been sliced open and that several compartments had flooded. Schettino was caught in an embarrassing taped conversation with the port authority in Livorno, which questioned why he had abandoned ship with passengers still on, with an official famously screaming “Get back onboard, damn it” when he learned the captain had “accidentally” fallen into a lifeboat. The contents of the black box will confirm what really happened, and next week’s trial will likely lead to formal indictments for at least Schettino and his officers. A formal trial would likely begin in January.

While the criminal case unfolds in Grosseto, the salvage operation off Giglio is still in its infancy.  It will be springtime before the joint American-Italian Titan Micoperi salvage team are ready to raise the Concordia and sail it back to the Italian mainland to destroy it—if the plan works. The operation is the largest (by weight) maritime salvage ever attempted, and plenty can go wrong between now and then. The ship sits on an unstable seabed only a few meters from deeper waters. Crews are busy securing the ship before winter, prepping it to attach watertight caissons, which will be used as weights to balance the ship while it is lifted with the help of inflatable balls wedged below it.  They are also securing an underwater platform to the seabed from which 36 thick steel cables will be used to roll the ship back to its upright position.  If work stays on schedule, the ship will be lifted next April. The actual lifting should take less than two hours—one hour less than the entire fatal cruise lasted before it crashed after leaving from Civitavecchia port last Jan. 13.