Francesco Schettino fits a stereotype that makes most Italians cringe. In photos circulating around the Internet, the Costa Concordia captain’s shirt seems permanently unbuttoned to reveal a tuft of what looks like groomed chest hair. His skin is deeply tanned, à la Silvio Berlusconi, and his long curly mane is slicked back in a mullet that is meant to look suave. He has a reputation as an egomaniac who doesn’t budge from his beliefs. And he is a daredevil who likes to take risks. “He drives a ship like a Ferrari,” Martino Pellegrino, a crew member, told reporters near the crash site. “He was reckless.”
But it wasn’t Schettino’s navigational skills that got him into the trouble he’s in today but his deplorable actions after the Concordia hit an outcropping of rocks. He admits to the fatal error, saying he misjudged the distance when he diverted the massive cruiser more than two miles from her authorized route to do a “flyby” near the island of Giglio, where retired captain Mario Palombo was expecting a flash of light and a sounding of the Concordia’s horn. All across the island, residents describe these maritime greetings as a normal practice. Indeed, they take place from Sorrento to Venice with disturbing frequency.
Schettino, 52, was born in the Mafia enclave of Castellammare di Stabia, south of Naples. His parents were sailors and he followed the same course as many of his contemporaries, attending the nearby naval academy in Piano di Sorrento and eventually finding work on a tourist boat. After putting in his time cruising super-yachts around the Mediterranean Sea, he landed a job at Costa Crociere as head of security in 2002 and then was promoted to captain four years later. In his five years at the helm of the Costa Concordia, he earned a reputation not only for his womanizing, but also for his insubordination. Just a month earlier, he allegedly left the port of Marseilles in 60 knot winds against the port authority’s orders.
When the Concordia skimmed the rocky reef Friday, lodging a giant boulder into her hull, Schettino made his second mistake. Several passengers told The Daily Beast they felt a “shuffling sound” as the electricity went out. Some passengers even called the emergency services on the mainland. But Schettino seemed in denial.
After several emergency calls by passengers, Gregorio De Falco, who was heading the emergency services of the Port Authority in Livorno, reached out to the Concordia. “Everything OK?” he asked. Schettino lied and said yes, that they’d had an electrical problem but that they had solved it. Had Schettino told the truth at that moment, when he surely knew the impact had done damage to the ship, an evacuation could have begun before the ship started listing, and all the passengers might have been saved.
But instead Schettino made the decision to try to take the ship close to shore, guiding the crippled vessel near Giglio’s harbor, where he managed to turn it around 180 degrees before it sank, tipping completely on its side. Infrared video of the evacuation captured by the Italian Coast Guard shows hundreds of people trying to get off the ship as it was completely on its side, helped by the heroic rescue workers who had little more than moonlight to guide them.
By then Schettino was already on dry land, having a heated argument with De Falco, who was ordering him to return to his ship. Schettino can be heard explaining that he could not get back on the ship because it had capsized. De Falco then screamed, “Get back on board, prick!” The term in Italian, “Vada a bordo, cazzo!” has gone viral, with T-shirts an instant hit. A number of Facebook pages criticizing the captain also have cropped up, including one in which De Falco is the clear hero to Schettino’s greasy villain.
Schettino is back on the Sorrento coast, waiting to hear whether he will have to return to jail to wait out the criminal investigation that may hold him accountable for his actions. He faces pending charges for multiple counts of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, and abandoning ship. Back on Giglio, the death toll stands at 11, and the search goes on for 26 missing passengers and crew members. Among the missing are a 5-year-old Italian girl and her father and a retired couple from Minnesota. One German passenger who was thought to be missing had returned to Germany, still in shock. When the Italian Interior Ministry released the list of missing, she was shocked to find her name on it.
But there is little hope now that the rest will be found alive. Authorities have asked the families of the survivors to provide dental records and DNA samples of their loved ones to help in the identification process for any remains that are found. Divers had to suspend their search throughout the day Wednesday as heavy seas shifted the wreckage.
For now the Concordia is resting in shallow waters on two rocky pillars. A few meters away lies an underground cliff that gives way to much deeper water. A Dutch salvage crew is working to ready the ship to extract the 500,000 gallons of fuel still on board before it leaks into the sea. But if a sudden surge dislodges the Concordia from its resting place, authorities on Giglio worry the ship could be sent into the abyss.