EXCLUSIVE

03.11.14

Costa Concordia Captain: I’m A Scapegoat For Carnival Cruise Lines

The captain of the cruise ship whose crash claimed 32 lives tells The Daily Beast that he is being thrown under the bus by Carnival Cruise Lines in order to secure an insurance windfall.

Francesco Schettino, the erstwhile captain of the ill-fated Costa Concordia cruise ship that crashed off the shores of Giglio island in January 2013, says he alone is being blamed for the accident so Costa and its parent company, Carnival, can collect insurance money for the wrecked vessel.  The insurance payout for the wreck is expected to top $2 billion according to Lloyds of London and Munich Reinsurers, which have issued cost-study reports on the disaster.

“Since the beginning, they have searched for a way to put all the blame on me, saying the captain went crazy for a moment, not to forfeit the insurance money,” Schettino told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview in the courthouse in Grosseto on Tuesday.  “It didn’t take long to figure out that it would all be better if the responsibility rested with just one person rather than the whole company.”

The former head of Costa Cruiselines, Pier Luigi Foschi, testified as a prosecution witness at the trial on Monday, telling the court that neither Costa nor Carnival bear any responsibility whatsoever for the captain’s errant actions before, during or after the disaster.  “The company is not responsible for what happens on board the ship,” Foschi told the court.  “For us, the ship should have never been in that place at that time on that night. We entrust the ship captain with full responsibility for the ships.”

Schettino is facing charges of multiple manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing a maritime disaster in the accident that killed 32 people and injured dozens more.  Five Costa Cruise officials have already pled guilty to manslaughter for negligence in the accident, including two witnesses who failed to show up at Tuesday’s hearing.  Manrico Giampedroni, who was the ship’s hotel director, spent more than 48 hours trapped in a half-submerged restaurant, staying awake by drinking Coca Cola from cans that floated by. He pled guilty to manslaughter charges and received a two-and-a-half-year sentence. He did not attend Tuesday’s hearing because Costa has redeployed him on a new cruise ship and he won’t be back on shore until April 11. 

Captain Schettino says he is a scapegoat so Costa Cruises and its parent company Carnival can collect cruise ship insurance Money

The ship’s helmsman Jacob Rusli Bin, who also pled guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a sentence of one year and eight months, also failed to answer a subpoena to testify.  He was “unreachable” and believed to be living in Jakarta, Indonesia, according to the Grosseto court clerk.  Maria Navarro, one of Schettino’sdefense lawyers hypothesized that the helmsman, whom Schettino says misinterpreted his orders and turned the ship the wrong way when it hit the rocks off Giglio, “might actually be in a psychiatric hospital.”  The two are rescheduled to testify in April. 

“Most likely Costa is forcing them to stay away from the trial as part of a conspiracy to blame me,” Schettino told The Daily Beast.  “They will say and do anything not to blame the whole team because if the whole team is found ultimately responsible, it reflects negatively on the cruiseship management, which would impact the insurance payout.”

Schettino maintains that while he made the first fatal error to take the Concordia off course to do a fly-by salute near Giglio, the events that followed were those that contributed to the loss of life.  His defense team has argued in court that the ship’s watertight doors and emergency generators malfunctioned and that had the ship functioned properly, he would have been able to navigate it to a safer place for evacuation.  He also says that the decision to delay the evacuation was a team decision, not his alone.  Based on phone records from Schettino’s private cellphone filed in court, the captain was on the phone at least a dozen times to Roberto Ferrarini, head of Costa’s crisis unit in Genova, between the moment of impact and the call to abandon ship.  Ferrarini, who will testify on April 14, also took a plea bargain, pleading guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a sentence of two years and 10 months.

Schettino reportedly asked Ferrarini about getting a tugboat and some helicopters to avoid having tomake the ‘abandon ship’ call, which automatically triggers a refund for passenger tickets. Schettino told The Daily Beast he is the scapegoat for Costa and its parent company Carnival.  “They were all there, but it is apparently better to just blame me when the whole team is responsible. I was only there for the last three minutes,” he said, referring to his physical presence on the bridge just as the Concordia clipped the rocks off Giglio.  “This is a conspiracy to convict the captain when the core team made the erroneous decisions together.”

Costa, which maintains that the insurance payout will not cover the cost of the salvage operation and returning the island of Giglio to its previous state, says the captain is desperate and lashing out.  "This is has been his defense all along," Luciano Luffarelli, spokesperson for Costa Cruisellines who attended court on Tuesday told The Daily Beast. "But it is indisputable that the captain is the only person responsible for the ship."

On February 27, Schettino accompanied the three-judge panel and a group of maritime experts as they toured the half-sunken ship which was uprighted in a spectacular maneuver last September.  “It was one of the most important, wonderful experiences I have ever had,” he told The Daily Beast.  “Getting back on that ship was one of the best things I have ever done in my life, because it will help us find the truth.”

At Tuesday’s court session, the prosecutor announced that he was launching an investigation into photos Schettino allegedly took with his cellphone while onboard the vessel on February 27.  Schettino’s defense contends that the photos were taken to help their own experts determine the ship’s condition.  The judge referred the case to another court.

The next hearing will be April 14 and the prosecution is expected to wrap up their case by the end of April.  There will be further sessions in May, which may include testimony from Schettino, but the court will then be forced to take a break in June when the theater where the hearings are being held to accommodate all of the civil parties and passengers has been booked for a dance festival.  Schettino says he is philosophical about the future.  He says he doesn’t know if he will ever return to the sea as a navigator, but he won’t rule it out. “We will see. In life sometimes we have to reinvent ourselves and find new directions and vocations.  I’m not worried about myself. We are fighting a giant and hopefully the truth will prevail,” he told The Daily Beast.  When asked if he was worried about going to prison for 20 years or more, he said no.  “As they say, the sea makes a man stronger.”