Francesco Schettino, the captain of the Costa Concordia, was secretly recorded by police claiming that his bosses put him under intense pressure to sail the cruise ship close to Giglio island in order to present a spectacle to passengers.
“Management was always saying ‘pass by there, pass by there’. Someone else in my position might not have been so amenable to pass so close but they busted my balls, pass by there, pass by there, and now I’m paying for it,” Capt Francesco Schettino, 52, told a friend during a telephone conversation in the hours after he was arrested.
Genoa-based Costa Cruises insists that it never authorised him to steer so close to the island on the night of Jan 13, in a risky manoeuvre that resulted in the 1,000ft long liner ramming into rocks and capsizing.
But the tape recordings appear to back up claims by the captain and his lawyers that the cruise company in fact encouraged the practise, because it was good “publicity” and went down well with passengers in the increasingly competitive cruise ship business.
The captain’s conversation was covertly taped when he was held in a police station in Orbetello on the Italian mainland, after being arrested on Giglio in the hours after the chaotic evacuation of the giant ship.
He called a friend on his mobile phone and told him: “When I realised that the ship was listing, I left and got off it.” He also repeated claims that the rocky islet that the ship smashed into was not marked by his electronic navigation systems.
“The shoal was there, but it was not indicated by my instruments and we hit it.” He had been relying instead on a paper chart and on the advice of Mario Palombo, a former colleague and veteran Costa captain to whom the ‘salute’ to Giglio was intended.
Capt Palombo has a house on the tiny Tuscan holiday resort, although ironically he was not there on the night of the sail-past.
The rocky islet that the giant liner collided with rises several feet out of the water and is clearly marked even on tourist maps of the island.
Capt Schettino, who has been dubbed ‘Captain Coward’ by the Italian media, insisted to his friend that once a huge rip had been torn in the 450 million euro ship and water began flooding into its engine rooms, he did his utmost to ground it on the shore and save lives.
“The hole was immense. There was a spike of rock. But everything that happened from that moment on, I performed to the utmost extent of my professionalism.” He said he did his best to “alleviate” a desperate situation, as 4,200 terrified passengers and crew donned life jackets and prepared to abandon ship in the darkness.
“I’m proud that we saved so many people, including some who would not have managed,” he said during the intercepted call. His efforts that night might at least gave him “the illusion of being at peace with my conscience,” he said.
Capt Schettino is being held under house arrest at his home in Meta di Sorrento, near Naples.
He faces charges of causing a shipwreck, abandoning ship and multiple counts of manslaughter. The death toll is 16, with about 20 people of half a dozen nationalities still missing.
Prosecutors objected to a judge’s decision to release him from custody and will appeal against the ruling on Feb 10, asking that he be returned to jail.
Domnica Cemortan, 25, a Moldovan cruise ship dancer who reportedly had dinner with the captain in the hour before the collision, is to be interviewed by Italian prosecutors by telephone on Friday.
During the call made from the police station, a clearly shaken Capt Schettino said his sailing days were over. “I don’t ever want to go back on a boat. I’m going to change my life.” Lawyers for a group of Italian survivors said that responsibility for the accident extended beyond Capt Schettino to his superiors.
“We don’t believe that everything can be blamed on a moment of madness by the captain,” said Francesco Compagna and Pietro Ilardi in a statement.