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'It was a stupid thing sailing so close. I hope we don't all have to pay for someone showing off'

Did the island's mayor encourage 'sail bys'? Michael Day pieces together the full story
  • @michael2day

As a clearer picture emerges of the events that led to the Costa Concordia sailing into rocks off the island off Giglio last Friday, it is becoming obvious that it was an accident waiting to happen – in the truest sense.

The local Mayor appeared to encourage huge liners to approach this island, partly as a crowd pleaser, part in homage to a retired but legendary Costa Crociere captain and Giglio native, Mario Palombo. In a letter written last August, which was posted on a local website, Giglio Mayor Sergio Ortelli personally thanked another Costa Crociere captain for making a crowd-pleasing "sail by".

The revelation raised the question of whether the fatal decision to bring the cruise ship closer to the island was part of regular routine. Mr Ortelli has denied that potentially disastrous diversions were the norm before Friday evening's disaster. "It's absolutely not normal practice and my words were directed at the then commander of the Concordia, Massimo Calisto Garbinarino, who was navigating on the 9 August, who gave the tourists a treat – in complete safety – and who may have wanted to salute an old sea commander (an apparent reference to Mr Palombo)," he said.

Mr Palombo was not at his apartment in Giglio yesterday and refused to speak when telephoned by The Independent. But one of his neighbours, Vilma, 71, defended him against suggestions he encouraged luxury liners to attempt crowd-pleasing sorties near the island. "He's a very respected person on the island," she said. "A famous seaman, and I can't believe he would encourage something like this."

Earlier yesterday, Corriere della Sera caught Mr Palombo's final comments before he began hanging up on callers. "I don't understand how it [Friday's disaster] could have happened or what my colleague was thinking," he said. "You don't need permission from the harbour office. The captain decides the route. On board, he reigns supreme."

It was also suggested that the "sail past"could have been a favour to another local on board the vessel – the Concordia's head waiter. Yesterday it emerged that his sister had excitedly told her friends about the display in advance on Facebook. "In a short period of time the Concordia ship will pass very close," she wrote. "A big greeting to my brother who finally gets to have a holiday on landing in Savona!"

A short while later, Captain Francesco Schettino – who is now in police custody – summoned Mr Tievoli to the bridge. "Antonello, come and see. We're right on top of Giglio," they told him, according to local newspaper reports. Mr Tievoli duly went and looked. He had no duties in the engine room or on deck. But he does have two good eyes. "Watch out. We're very close to shore," he warned. But it was too late.

Bruno Leporatti, the lawyer for Mr Schettino, who fled the wreck before his passengers, said he was "overcome and wants to express his greatest condolences to the victims". But he could not resist adding that Mr Schettino's actions in anchoring the ship at one end to swing it closer to the shore after the collision "saved the lives of thousands of people".

Last night authorities in Giglio were attempting to prevent further repercussions from the disaster by stopping the vessel's fuel from leaking into the sea. But Gaetano Benedetto, the political director for WWF Italia, said: "You're talking about the Sea of Maremma, with its park and sanctuary for whales and for some time there's been a risk of a disaster."

Asked about the threat of pollution from the wreck and devastating the fragile ecosystem of the sea and lagoon, Vilma was sanguine. "They've got it all under control. I'm sure they have," she said. Her elderly friend Agnese was less confident: "There are 2,000 tonnes of fuel in that thing. And what happens if the seas get rough and it moves completely? I'm not so sure."

Fabrizio, 23, who works in the port's domestic supplies shop, said people were nervous. "In the summer there are 5,000 people here and they come for the wildlife and the beauty. They won't if things are covered in oil," he said. "It was a stupid thing to do."

'We should have been let on life boats sooner'

A British dancer said the order to abandon ship should have come an hour earlier as crew knew something was "deadly wrong" with the Costa Concordia.

James Thomas, 19, from Birmingham, described how he was thrown out of bed when the cruise liner foundered. "We started to lean to the port side... it got more and more dramatic and everyone seemed to know that it wasn't just a normal turn, we were turning unbelievably sharply," he said.

The entertainer from Sutton Coldfield said: "We waited for it (the abandon ship instruction) to be called and it was finally called after some of the life boats were deployed. We had reached such a tilt that we couldn't deploy any more on the port side so we had to run to the starboard side. Some of us went one way, some of us went the other. The people who didn't go the way I did... had to swim."