The captain of the Costa Concordia cruise ship, which capsized after hitting a rock off Italy's Giglio island in January, killing 32, is a free man. As of Thursday, Francesco Schettino has been freed from house arrest, with the sole condition that he remain in his hometown of Meta di Sorrento near Naples, where he has lived since being freed from jail Jan. 17.
Schettino has also penned a memo for his attorneys, which they have leaked to the Italian press ahead of his trial on charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship with passengers aboard. In the document, as reported by several Italian media outlets, Schettino defended his actions in the aftermath of the accident and said that "a divine hand" suggested to him an instinctive maneuver that brought the ship closer to shore, preventing a sinking in deep water that would have been a massacre.
The Costa Concordia luxury liner was on a Mediterranean cruise with 4,200 passengers when it hit an undersea rock on the evening of January 13, a few hundred yards off the coast of Giglio Island. Prosecutors suspect that the ship was being steered close to land in order to impress passenger and local residents. Schettino maintains that the rock did not appear on nautical charts.
Passengers allege that the order to evacuate was given too late. The ship started listing badly to port after the impact, to the point when liferafts became unusable on the left side of the ship and many people had to jump into the sea and swim to safety.
Schettino left the ship before many of the passengers did, saying that he was helping direct the rescue from land. But according to prosecutors, the captain had abandoned ship, a crime punishable with years in prison under Italian law.
Days after the accident, a recording surfaced of a phone call between Schettino and the commander of the Coast Guard on Giglio. The Coast Guard officer, upon learning that the captain was looking at the wreck from land, yelled at him to "Get the f--- back on board!" and mocked him for his lack of bravery: "You say it's dark, Schettino? It's dark, so you want to go home?" The recording became an instant sensation in Italy, inspiring widespread reproach for the captain, who was arrested and spent a few days in jail before being remanded to house arrest pending trial.
Perhaps in an attempt to clear his name, Schettino -- whom his company, Costa Crociere, a division of Carnival Cruises (NYSE: CCL), also accused of negligence for deviating from the ship's planned course -- has now written a three-page document in which he explains, somewhat murkily, what he did on that fateful night.
"They've called experts from abroad to explain my decisions, but what is there to understand?" wrote Schettino, referring to a sudden turn to starboard, or right, after the ship hit the rock -- a maneuver that has baffled experts as it led the ship closer to land. What really happened, according to the captain, was that he ordered full rudder to starboard exactly with the purpose of getting closer to the island and avoid an even more disastrous sinking in deeper waters.
The captain's sudden decision was "inspired by my instinct, my experience, my ability to know the sea, and at that moment it was as if a divine hand was resting on my head."
Schettino also hinted at possible wrong communications from his crew that led to the ship hitting the rock: "But I am not a coward, the priority then was not to find guilty parties but to act without losing one's cool." Prosecutors and eyewitnesses allege that lose his cool is precisely what he did, but the captain disagrees. He wrote in the memo that he waited to give the evacuation order, "because the ship herself is the best life raft and I waited until we were in shallower waters."
Experts are still studying evidence from the ship, which remains capsized just off Giglio, where it has been since the accident. They won't have an easy time of it, or at least they won't according to the disgraced captain, whose self-defense memo said that "this story [is] far more complex than the media has portrayed it." As for when we may find out just how complex, that also is murky: No court date has been set yet.