Francesco Schettino, the captain of the Costa Concordia cruise ship that sank in Italian waters on Friday, is currently facing criminal charges for manslaughter and abandoning ship. The seasoned sailor has become an international villain for his response to the accident, which has resulted in at least eleven deaths.
Although Costa and its parent company Carnival are now trying to distance themselves from the captain, Schettino had risen through the ranks to the point where he was trusted with a $500 million boat and the lives of more than 4,000 people.
He's been at sea his whole career, Anthony Palmiotti, the chairman of the Marine Transportation Department at SUNY Maritime College in Bronx, N.Y., told IBTimes.
But that doesn't mean you're prepared for that kind of disaster. He's had a lot of experience in operations that weren't a crisis. But he is trained for a crisis.
What Went Wrong
All the training that Schettino received was apparently forgotten when he brought the Concordia five miles off course in order to give a salute for Commodore Mario Palombo, with whom I was on the telephone, and then collided with a rock near the shores of Giglio Island in Italy.
As the ship began to list from 60 to 70 and finally to 80 degrees, it is believed that Schettino left the vessel and fled to shore, where he hailed a cab and drove inland.
The captain told judges in the town of Grosseto on Tuesday that while on board, he was trying to get people to get into the boats in an orderly fashion when he tripped and fell into a lifeboat and got stuck for an hour. Only later did he get in the water and head for land.
Even if this were true, it is still a serious breach in protocol; during an evacuation, the captain shouldn't be anywhere close to the lifeboats.
The master must always be on the bridge and in command, Palmiotti explained.
That was his [Schettino's] job -- to provide that command and control. He's supposed to have the big picture, so that he can direct the rest of his crew.
Every single registered ship has an emergency plan in place. The plan has to be approved by state authorities and regularly practiced.
On a ship the size of the Concordia, which is said to have had somewhere around 1,000 staff onboard, about 200-300 crew members are assigned specific duties. Each has what is called a muster station, which vary from helping passengers into rafts, taking attendance and giving out life jackets, and in the captain's case, piloting the entire procedure.
There are steps a captain takes, Palmiotti said. First you must assess what's going on. 'What steps can I take to mitigate what's happening?' And then you have to stop the problem -- fire, water... maybe you can maybe you can't.
But you have to be there to do this, he added.
Chaos at Sea
Almost every aspect of the wreck of the Concordia was extraordinary. Because the boat was so top-heavy -- 17 decks high, most of them above the water -- when water collected on the side of boat with the 160-foot gash in it, it instantly tipped. When the ship went over, most of the lifeboats became useless. Power was lost, the boat filled with water, and these conditions would have made it extremely difficult for Schettino to stay on the bridge.
At some point, he'd have to leave the bridge when they lost power, said Les Eadie, the captain of the training ship at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Maine.
But you can't direct an evacuation from off the ship, unless fire and flames force you off, Eadie said, adding that Schettino could have directed his crew from the still-dry port side of the ship.
When they were getting ready to evacuate, if you look closely at the photos, the only crew you see are the ones at the lifeboats -- the cooks and cleaners, who all have been trained for that, Eadie said. You don't see any white hats of the officers. [Schettino] could have helped there.
Even following similar accidents, most large boats don't sink as fast as the Concordia did. When a cruise ship called the Sea Diamond hit a rock near the island of Santorini in Greece in 2007, it took a full day for the ship to sink. The Concordia was on its side just an hour after it collided with a rock. The only thing that was working in the boat's (and ultimately the captain's) favor was its proximity to the shore.
It's the middle of the night. Things are happening quickly. But there is a huge amount of people to get to safety. There was no time to think, said Palmiotti, noting that emergency conditions make even the most practiced evacuation plans probably not possible.
Without Schettino leading the operation, it took about seven hours for the 4,200 people on board to be brought safely to shore, significantly longer than the internationally mandated 30 minute time-frame. Nonetheless, most of the passengers made it off safely, even while the ship's captain was allegedly in a taxi cab driving away from the scene.
There were an awful lot of people on board who did a lot of good work. Almost all of the 4,000 people got off safely, because the crew did their job. And they did it without direction from the top, said Palmiotti. They stayed there in end with the passengers.
The junior officers took it on themselves to start the evacuation, Eadie added.
There was also one captain who went by the books on Friday night in Giglio. While Schettino's action's likely caused a preventable disaster, the actions of Italian Coast Guard captain Gregorio De Falco, who ran the rescue mission from the shore, saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.
Two men ... two stories, one who humiliates us, the other who redeems, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera said. Thank you Captain De Falco, our country badly needs people like you.