Costa Concordia captain Francesco Schettino blames crew for crash


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The Independent Online

The captain of the wrecked Costa Concordia has blamed his helmsman for the accident which caused the ship to crash off the coast of Italy last year.

Francesco Schettino, currently standing trial in Italy, told the court that as the ship came dangerously close to the rocky coast of Giglio island, the helmsman failed to obey orders to slow down and steered the ship onto the rocks. Thirty-two people died in the accident.

Schettino is charged with manslaughter, causing the shipwreck and abandoning ship before the cruise liner's 4,200 passengers and crew could be evacuated in January 2012.

The captain claims he is being made a scapegoat for the mistakes of others and that mechanical problems exacerbated the tragedy. Critics, however, have called him a negligent coward.

It was an off-route manoeuvre that the captain is alleged to have taken in part because he wanted to impress his passengers with a close-up view of the Tuscan island's twinkling lights.

Schettino told the court that as the Concordia came close to Giglio's rocky coastline, he ordered his helmsman to turn the rudder to the left, but the crewman reacted too slowly and shifted to the right instead. The reef sliced a 230-foot gash in the ship's hull.

"If it weren't for the helmsman's error, to not position the rudder to the left ... the swerve (toward the reef) and the collision wouldn't have happened," said Schettino, who faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Schettino also has said the reef was not on his charts, and that the company should shoulder some blame.

Investigators have said language problems between the Italian captain and the Indonesian-born helmsman may have played a role in the botched manoeuvre. A maritime expert, however, told the court that although the helmsman was slow to react and had indeed erred, in the end it did not matter.

"The helmsman was 13 seconds late in executing the manoeuvre, but the crash would have happened anyway," Italian Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone said.

The helmsman, Jacob Rusli Bin, is one of five Costa employees granted plea bargains in return for mild sentences in a separate proceeding. He was sentenced to 20 months, but because of a law to reduce prison overcrowding, none of the five is likely to serve time behind bars.

Those upset by the relatively light punishments had some cause for optimism. A Florence-based prosecutor lodged a formal challenge to the plea bargain deals, and Italy's highest criminal court will have to rule on it at a later date.

Last week, the capsized ship was raised upright in a major salvage operation. Now resting upright on a man-made platform on the seabed, it is expected to be towed away next year and broken up for scrap. In the meantime, Schettino's defence team wants experts to go inside it to determine why water pumps and an emergency generator failed to function, among other alleged mechanical problems.

"The power generator - as are the other devices - are fundamental to understanding what happened that night," Schettino's lawyer Francesco Pepe said on his way into court. "We want to understand why they didn't work."