NewsFatal bow

Fatal bow

What was thought to be the highlight of the trip became the trauma of modern cruising. Ten years after the “Costa Concordia” disaster, people on Giglio remember the victims – and the captain is still fighting for his reputation

The wind, that much is certain, prevented worse things from happening. Had it blown from a different direction that evening, the ship would have drifted out to sea. And then the people in the port of the small island of Giglio would have had to watch a disaster that would have eclipsed the real events in every respect.

But the wind comes from the water, and the current is also favorable on January 13, 2012, a Friday. And so the “Costa Concordia”, a colossus made of steel and glass, 290 meters long, 54 meters high and weighing 30,000 tons, at that time the largest ship in the fleet of the Costa Crociere shipping company, slowly drifts towards the rocky outcrop north of the port of Giglio and remains on a rock plinth below the surface of the water.

The fact that a cruise ship drives so close to their island is nothing unusual for the people who live on Giglio, on the contrary: a so-called inchino, a bow like cruising in the immediate vicinity of the coast in full lighting and accompanied by the deep call of the Schiffshorns is one of the highlights of a Mediterranean passage. A highlight not only for the people on board, because the port town is an enchanting photo opportunity even in the dark. On this evening, the bow also goes to the chef of the Costa Concordia, who comes from the island. And Francesco Schettino, the captain of the Costa, also wants to pay tribute to a former colleague who lives on Giglio. At 9.45 p.m. – it is less than ten minutes since Schettino returned to the bridge from dinner – the seafaring romance ends suddenly.

The ship trembles like a gigantic gong, a loud roar shakes the floating city, plates and bottles crash to the floor in the dining rooms, travelers fall from their chairs or from their beds in the cabins. Then: silence. And shortly afterwards: darkness. The first on board panic, but calm down when the light comes on again. A few minutes after the shock: again no electricity, and those who gather on the various decks wearing life jackets are asked by the ship’s staff to go back inside.

The evacuation is not announced by a horn signal until half past ten, meanwhile the maneuverable ship has turned and ran aground on the coast. When it begins to tilt, the first jump overboard and try to swim to the bank, not even a hundred meters away. Others rush to the lifeboats while hundreds still wander through the corridors in the hull of the ship.

There is a state of emergency not only on board. “We woke up that night in a nightmare, in a kind of apocalypse,” recalls Sergio Ortelli, who is still mayor of Giglio to this day. Again and again, desperate screams drown out the noise of the engines of the rescue ships that drive back and forth between the pier and the continually sloping Costa Concordia. Until 4 a.m., helicopters circle over the site of the accident and bring the last of the more than 4,200 passengers and crew on the small island to safety. 32 people did not survive the accident: they drowned in their cabins or tried desperately to swim to the shore in the icy water.

For two and a half years the Costa Concordia lay like a huge stranded whale in front of the island, until it was erected again in July 2014 after the largest and most expensive rescue operation in the history of seafaring and towed to Genoa for scrapping. In November 2014, the last victim was discovered in the wreck, an Indian waiter. “With the disappearance of the wreck, we found our way back to our calm, our peace and our way of life,” says Ortelli today. The sea is clean and even the devices on the seabed that were necessary for the recovery have been dismantled. “But”, emphasizes the mayor, “this tragedy has of course remained alive in our hearts. And remembering the dead should help us never to make similar mistakes again. “

The person responsible for the accident was identified just a few days after the accident: Captain Francesco Schettino. A good, experienced officer, but evidently a man who not only made women look good, but also loved to wind up. His subordinates were reluctant to contradict him, which is part of a hierarchical order and sometimes prevents worse things, but on days like January 13, 2012, it can turn a careless mistake into an avoidable catastrophe. Because instead of ordering the evacuation of the passengers immediately, Schettino lets time pass, too much time. He will later testify in court that he hesitated because he was afraid he would panic people unnecessarily. He and the others on the bridge should have been aware of the seriousness of the situation a quarter of an hour after the collision with the rock. At that time, those responsible on the bridge – this becomes clear in the final report of the expert commission – have long known that water has penetrated the hull and flooded the engine rooms, which is why the ship can no longer be steered.

Kapitän Francesco Schettino.

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Kapitän Francesco Schettino.

When it becomes public what is said to have caused Schettino to maneuver in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the stiff breeze that blows towards the unlucky captain turns into a storm of indignation. 32 dead for a little brag? And it doesn’t take long before the phrase “Fare el Schettino”, i.e. “to make the Schettino”, has established itself as a synonym for cowardice. Because Schettino is said to have left his ship shortly after midnight, allegedly – as he later testified in court – he fell into a lifeboat and then decided to go ashore and coordinate the rescue of the passengers from there. The fact that Schettino was not the only one of the Italian crew members who disembarked so early would neither save his reputation nor lessen his sentence. And the fact that he should have asked at the hotel in Giglio where he could buy new socks because his got wet gave everyone that impetus to deny Schettino every last spark of honor.

And the pull of indignation should stir up further rumors in the murky water around the wreck: Why was a drug test done on Schettino, but not checked to see whether he had drunk alcohol? Was the mysterious woman who is said to have given Schettino a laptop the morning after the accident, which never reappeared, been sent by the shipping company? And what about the two men who are said to have removed instruments from the wreckage lashed in front of Genoa? How was the helmsman, who was supposed to testify in court in March 2014, able to escape to Indonesia unnoticed and why did he refuse to testify? Much of it remained vague guesswork, and very little could ever be proven. The only thing that is certain is that the German Federal Bureau of Maritime Casualty Investigation (BSU) announced in December 2015 that it would cease investigations into the case because the Italian authorities did not cooperate. The BSU was involved at the time because twelve of the victims came from Germany.

While the dismantling of the wreck was under way in Genoa, Schettino was sentenced in February 2015. He is one of six crew members to be held accountable, but is by far the most severely punished. 16 years imprisonment. For negligent homicide and negligent bodily harm. And also because he disembarked so early.

Schettino himself never tires of stylizing himself as a scapegoat or a pawn sacrifice, speaks of general failure and organizational errors. “They wanted to find a culprit, not the truth,” quoted the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” these days as quoting Schettino’s lawyer. And thus alludes to the fact that the shipping companies would have expressly wanted the dense passages and bows to advertise their trips.

While the shipping company Costa Crociere paid a total of around 80 million euros in damages to passengers and crew members by 2015 and is no longer part of the proceedings, Schettino’s appeal proceedings drag on until 2017. The judgment is also confirmed in the last instance. The lawyer Hans Reinhardt, who represented 30 German passengers and appeared as a joint plaintiff in the criminal proceedings against Schettino, expressed his satisfaction with the verdict to the German press agency: After the accident, a sign had to be set so that something similar would not happen again .

Francesco Schettino has been in Rebibbia prison in Rome for four and a half years. And even if the now 61-year-old, according to a report in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, turns out to be a model prisoner who is undergoing psychotherapy and taking courses in law and journalism because he wants to understand how he could become a “victim of a media process” , Schettino is still a persona non grata for many people. Not only at Giglio, but above all there: “We were completely shaken by what Schettino did – and we are still today,” emphasizes the former seaman Giovanni Brizzi. The 70-year-old went to sea himself for five decades, and not only he, almost everyone on the island lived from and with the sea: “We are fishermen, sailors, crew of the ferries, dock workers, captains.” And a maneuver as Schettino had done, was “unimaginable for all of us” and “completely absurd”.

To date, there are not many voices in public space that support Schettino’s claim of general failure and organizational errors. It is seldom emphasized that the final report of the investigative commission, which is reproduced in great detail on Wikipedia, does not declare that Schettino is solely responsible for all points. In the waves of outrage over Schettino’s failure as captain, the contribution of the German sociologist Anna Culjak was probably lost. In 2014 she dealt with the Costa Concordia accident in her book “Organization und Devianz”. And comes to the conclusion: “There is no such thing as a captain who took a risky ship course for selfish reasons.” According to Culjak’s calculations and research, “practices that deviate from the norm but are informally tolerated have gradually emerged as a result of the increasing competitive pressure on the cruise market “Established what, according to the author, started a no less fatal spiral:” Increasing the attractiveness of a trip is therefore often more important than complying with the safety standards. ” accelerated and made evacuating passengers more difficult.

It is said in expert circles that the Costa Group was working on a new bridge management concept, which is based on a collegial decision-making process, even before the Costa Concordia disaster. It was implemented shortly after the accident. Information on the new bridge management can also be found on the website of the Dutch training center “CSmart” in Almere. According to the new model, the captain retains the powers required by law, but all team members can participate in decisions about the maneuvers. In addition, all planned routes are exchanged between the master and the other officers and responsible persons before they are implemented.

Since October 2015, the Costa Group has also been operating a Fleet Operation Center in Hamburg, which is manned around the clock. All technical data is evaluated there and the routes of all 25 ships in the group are adapted to current weather conditions and the density of ships.

Bürgermeister Sergio Ortelli.

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Mayor Sergio Ortelli.

The evening is probably not as cold as ten years ago, when today the 32 dead of the accident are commemorated on Giglio and a wreath is laid on the statue of Mary at the port, right next to the plaque with the names of the people who did not survive the accident. And when the sirens start to wail at 9.45 p.m. at the port – as it does every year on January 13th – Sergio Ortelli will not be able to avoid thinking of Francesco Schettino. His lawyer recently expressed the hope that the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg could deal with the complaint that the captain filed there against his prison sentence in 2018. In May, Schettino will have served a third of his sentence – and as a model prisoner, his chances are not bad that he will be waived a few years.

And even if Schettino’s shadow still hangs over Giglio, the relief of having returned to normal prevails on the island. Ferdinando Pazzaglia emphasizes that the Costa Concordia disaster also had its positive sides, despite all the suffering and mourning for the dead. Just a few days after the accident, the 45-year-old dock worker from the mainland town of Orbetello hired the salvage company, which first took the passengers’ belongings from the ship. He was also there when the fuel was pumped out and the wreck was recovered. “For two and a half years I had an interesting and nice job,” says Pazzaglia.

Above all, however, he “found the love of my life on Giglio”. He married her and stayed on the island. And he knows: “Hundreds of workers, engineers and specialists from all over the world were employed on the construction site to rescue the Costa Concordia.” He is by no means the only one who has found a partner on Giglio, as he says. And in addition to the 1,400 people who lived on Giglio before the accident, a number of children have now joined the group – not just to his delight.

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