The Costa Concordia began its last journey on Wednesday, when tugboats began towing the stricken cruise ship from Giglio Island toward the port of Genoa, where it will be scrapped. And while workers on the Italian island prepared the ship for the arduous trip, the man on trial for sinking it with the loss of 32 lives partied blithely at an exclusive seaside villa.
Francesco Schettino, the Italian captain of the cruise liner, is accused of causing the shipwreck and abandoning the sinking ship. On Jan. 13, 2012, the Concordia, carrying more than 4,000 passengers and crew, struck an undersea rock while passing very close to the Giglio shore, off Tuscany, in an apparent showoff maneuver. During the chaotic evacuation that followed, ordered almost an hour later, Schettino was taped while on the telephone with the local Coast Guard commander, who yelled at him to get back on board, because his passengers were still there.
Schettino has been in the public eye on and off since, mostly as a national figure of ridicule and revilement. Then a reporter for Il Golfo, a local newspaper on the picturesque island of Ischia off Naples, got a tip that Schettino had been spotted at a party on the island last Saturday evening. The anonymous tipster provided pictures, which the daily published in its Tuesday issue, showing the captain looking tan and smiling in the company of other unnamed guests.
The party was held at a posh seaside villa rented by publisher Pietro Graus, the paper said. Schettino was on the the island for a few days’ vacation, Il Golfo said, in order to escape the media hordes camped out in front of his home in Meta di Sorrento on the mainland, south of Naples.
It didn't look pretty. Il Golfo splashed the story right on the front page, seen below, under an all-caps headline: "INCREDIBLE! SCHETTINO HAVING FUN AT ISCHIA PARTY!" And what was a man on trial for the biggest cruise ship disaster in decades doing out free and at a party, anyway?
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The 52-year-old Schettino (sket-TEE-noh) is, in fact, a free man. After spending a few days in jail in the immediate aftermath of the wreck, he was placed under house arrest pending trial, until July 2012. He was and still is a defendant in a criminal trial for manslaughter, causing the loss of a ship and abandoning ship. (Italian criminal trials can be lengthy proceedings.)
In July two years ago, his attorneys successfully petitioned to have him freed from house arrest and placed under a less restrictive measure: Schettino would merely have to report to police in his hometown every day. In May 2013, that restriction was also lifted and the former captain, now stripped of his maritime license, was free to go. At the time, he was quoted by an Italian newspaper as saying he was looking for a job and that he had received some offers, but it’s not known whether he is actually doing anything for a living these days.
Guests at the Graus party speculated that Schettino might be writing a memoir, which would justify his presence at a party hosted by a publisher and with mostly authors as guests. But nobody at the publishing house, Il Golfo added, would elaborate when asked for a comment. In any case, “Schettino left at 11:30 p.m., while the party went on.”
The captain remains the only person on trial for the Concordia disaster. Four crew members and an official of Costa Cruises, a unit of Carnival Corporation (NYSE:CCL), were sentenced to terms of up to 34 months in prison. The helmsman who was at the controls at the moment of the disaster, an Indonesian citizen named Jacob Rusli Bin, was among the sentenced, but is still at large.
Schettino is seeking a plea bargain to reduce a possible jail sentence, and maintains that he actually helped prevent a bigger disaster -- and that he didn’t jump ship, but fell overboard as the stricken vessel began to list heavily.