September 23, 2013

Concordia captain: It was the helmsman's fault

By Frances D'Emilio / The Associated Press

GROSSETO, Italy — At his trial on Monday, the captain of the shipwrecked Costa Concordia blamed his helmsman for botching a crucial maneuver that he contended would have avoided the cruise ship's deadly collision with a reef off an Italian island.

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People take a small boat past the damaged side of he Costa Concordia on the Tuscan Island of Giglio, Italy, last week. The crippled cruise ship was pulled completely upright early last Tuesday after a complicated, 19-hour operation.

AP

Capt. Francesco Schettino, the sole defendant on trial, is hoping the judge will grant his request for an inspection of the crippled luxury liner, which just last week was raised upright in a spectacular salvage operation.

The complicated maritime operation righted the Concordia outside Giglio Island harbor, where it had capsized the night of Jan. 13, 2012, killing 32 people. Salvage engineers have said the now-upright ship would be more accessible for court-appointed experts to inspect.

Schettino is charged with manslaughter, with causing the shipwreck and abandoning ship before its 4,200 passengers and crew could all be safely evacuated. He contends he is being made a scapegoat and that errors by other Costa Crociere SpA crew and mechanical problems aggravated the consequences of the tragedy.

The Concordia crashed into a reef, took on water and capsized when Schettino steered it too close to Giglio, an island off the Tuscan coast, during what was supposed to be a weeklong pleasure cruise in the Mediterranean.

Schettino told the court that as the Concordia came perilously close to Giglio's rocky coastline, he had ordered his helmsman to steer to the left, but the crewman reacted slowly and didn't carry out the maneuver.

"In my experience, there wouldn't have been the crash" had the helmsman promptly and properly had carried out the maneuver, Schettino said.

He spoke after asking the court for permission while technical experts were discussing how much the helmsman's action might have contributed to the collision.

"If it weren't for the delay and error ... the ship would have stopped" before slamming into the reef, which left a 70-meter (230-foot) gash in one side of the ship's hull, Schettino said.

He told the court he ordered a quick maneuver to the left, to try to abruptly steer the huge ship away from the coast.

Schettino in the past has said the reef wasn't on his charts and that the company should shoulder some blame. If convicted, he risks 20 years in prison.

The helmsman, Jacob Rusli Bin, is one of five Costa Crociere SpA employees who were granted plea bargains in return for mild sentences in a separate proceeding. The helmsman was convicted of manslaughter and causing the shipwreck, and was given a sentence of one year and 8 months.

Investigators have said that language problems between the Italian captain and the Indonesian-born helmsman might have played a role in the botched maneuver.

Because of a law shaving three years off sentences to reduce prison overcrowding, the helmsman is unlikely to serve any time behind bars.

The ship, now upright and resting on a man-made platform on the seabed, is expected to be towed away next year and broken up for scrap.

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