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Costa Concordia captain's blunders detailed in Vanity Fair

A new magazine article on the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship details a series of blunders and errors on the part of her captain that led to the deaths of at least 32 people and the largest shipwreck in maritime history.

The shipwreck in January off the coast of Italy precipitated a nightmarish scene of almost unimaginable chaos after the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, delayed calling for rescue aid after his navigation blunders forced the cruise ship onto rocks, according to the story.

Journalist Bryan Burrough, writing in the May Vanity Fair magazine, paints an unsparing portrait of that chaos in which passengers — given almost no information about the calamity that had befallen the ship — fought to find their children and other family members, free themselves in darkness from under deck as the ship tipped onto its side and attempted to reach life boats. 

Burrough, who interviewed dozens of witnesses, also details previously unsung heroes from some crew members to rescue divers and Italian Coast Guard officers and even the deputy mayor from the small town overlooking the wreck who combined forces to save most of the ship’s 4,200 passengers.

The story is damning in its details of Schettino’s actions, many reported for the first time. They include:

  • One passenger’s claim, though it is elsewhere unconfirmed, that he saw the captain and a friend “polish off a decanter of red wine while eating” prior to the catastrophe.
  • That the captain was going too fast for the conditions and seemed to be navigating by eyesight rather than with the aid of maps and radar, when he saw a set of rocks off the Tuscan coast prior to the crash. “What he failed to notice was another rock, nearer to the ship,” that was largely underwater, the story says. “An officer later told investigators he heard the captain say, ‘(expletive)…I didn’t see it!’ ”
  • The captain, who was casually talking on the phone when the ship approached the rocks, wrongly ordered the ship to turn to starboard, rather than port, to avoid the mostly submerged rock when he finally did see it. That caused the ship’s stern to swing around and slam into it, ripping open a 230-foot-long gash below the waterline.
  • When crew members spoke with the Coast Guard, Schettino ordered them to say that there was only a blackout on board and they did not need any immediate assistance. Schettino’s apparent refusal to “promptly admit the Concordia’s plight — to lie about it, according to the Italian Coast Guard — was not only a violation of Italian maritime law but cost precious time, delaying the arrival of rescue workers by as much as 45 minutes,” the story says.
  • When the ship began listing to starboard, the captain dropped its massive anchors to prevent it from tipping further, but played out too much line — so the anchors never caught and were of no help. It was a “jaw-droppingly stupid mistake,” according to a veteran American captain and nautical analyst, John Konrad, quoted in the story.
  • The captain, who made it ashore in a lifeboat he claims to have fallen into, begged in a phone call with a Coast Guard officer not to be sent back to the ship to look for survivors. That shocked the officer, who in return threatened Schettino by saying, “Tell me how many people are still on board and what they need. Is that clear? ... I’m going to make sure you get in trouble. I’m going to make you pay for this.”

In one of the few lighter reported details in the story, the ship’s hotel director survived for more than a day inside the tipped ship, trapped on a table above flooding waters, by drinking cans of Coke and bottles of Cognac he found floating by.

The ship remains on its side, and will take more than 10 to 12 months to remove, according to the story. As for the Schettino, he could face charges of manslaughter and illegally abandoning his ship. “Several survivors remarked on afterward, that amazingly, in a world of satellites and laser-guided weapons and instant communications almost anywhere on earth, ships could still sink,” the story says.

Read an excerpt of the article at Vanity Fair.

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