'Show off' Schettino testifies at trial

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Francesco Schettino is accused of multiple manslaughter over the cruise ship disaster. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
11:52 CET+01:00
UPDATED: Costa Concordia captain Francesco Schettino told a court on Tuesday that he was showing off when he steered the cruise ship onto rocks off the Italian island of Giglio, triggering a disaster in which 32 passengers and crew died.

Testifying for the first time in his trial for manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his ship, Schettino presented himself as a captain who had been badly briefed by his crew about the disastrous route the 115,000-tonne vessel was fixed on when he returned to the bridge after dinner.

On the sidelines of the hearing, prosecutor Francesco Verusio revealed he was planning to request a 20-year prison term for the captain.

Schettino, 54, told the court that it was normal practice to navigate close to the coast to impress passengers, as he had done on the night of January 13th 2012.

On this occasion, he also wanted to "salute" a retired colleague living on Giglio and the ship's head waiter, who came from there.

"I was trying to catch three pigeons with one bean," Schettino, said, using an Italian expression that translates as "killing three birds with one stone".

At the moment he resumed control of the boat, he believed it to be fixed on a safe route which would take it past Giglio on a line 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometres) offshore. "If the crew had any doubt about that, they should have told me."

Asked why he had asked the coastguard "is there water at 0.3 miles?" Schettino replied: "I was just making conversation."

'Captain Coward'

The captain denied taking a reckless risk to impress Moldovan blonde Domnica Cemortan, with whom he had just dined.

An employee of Costa who was on the ship as an unauthorized passenger, Cemortan was on the bridge at the time of the accident and has testified that she was having an affair with the married captain.

Wearing a grey suit and aviator-style sunglasses, the man dubbed "Captain Coward" appeared pensive as he arrived at a theatre in the Tuscan town of Grosetto which is being used as a temporary courtroom.

But for the most part he testified confidently in his first appearance in the trial which began in July 2013, using colourful language in the broad accent of his home city of Naples.

Recordings played in court from the "black box" voice recorder on the ship's bridge appeared to indicate that he had no idea of how much danger the ship was in. Just minutes before disaster struck, the captain is heard ordering a turn to the right (towards the coastline) before joking in English: "Otherwise we go on the rocks." 

'What have I done?'

In the final sentence of the recording, after the crash, Schettino is heard to say: "Madonna, what have I done?"

Schettino's first day in court came a month after the body of the last missing victim of the disaster was recovered from the salvaged wreck of the cruise ship, which is now being dismantled for scrap.

The Concordia, twice the size of the Titanic, was moving at a brisk 16 knots and had 4,229 people from 70 countries on board when it struck the rocks at 9.45pm.

Holed below its waterline on impact, the giant vessel slowly lumbered one way, then the other before finally sinking and settling, half-submerged on the sea-bed on its starboard side.

Schettino's employers have accused him of making an "unapproved and unauthorized" deviation from the ship's set route.

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Abandoned ship

Schettino's ignominious reputation is largely based on his conduct after the crash.

Only 29 minutes after he had given the order to passengers and crew to evacuate, and with lifeboats still dotting the surrounding waters, Schettino himself left the vessel with hundreds of those onboard still unaccounted for.

He later rebuffed a furious coastguard officer's order that he return out of respect for both the law and centuries-old sailors' code.

The Concordia was owned by Italian cruise operator Costa Crociere, which is a subsidiary of the British-American group Carnival Corporation.

Salvaging the Concordia from Giglio and the still-ongoing process of dismantling it in Genoa is expected to cost nearly $2 billion (€1.6 billion). The disaster also decimated the exclusive and picturesque island's tourist industry.

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