GROSSETO, Italy – The captain of the wrecked Costa Concordia, now on trial over the deadly disaster, blamed his helmsman Monday for botching a last-minute corrective maneuver that he contends could have prevented the massive cruise ship's collision with a reef off an Italian island.
Capt. Francesco Schettino is charged with manslaughter, causing the shipwreck and abandoning ship before the luxury cruise liner's 4,200 passengers and crew could be evacuated on Jan. 13, 2012. Thirty-two people died that night. Last week, the capsized ship was raised upright in a major salvage operation.
Critics have depicted Schettino as a negligent coward. But Schettino insists he is being made a scapegoat and that errors by other Costa Crociere SpA crew and mechanical problems exacerbated the tragedy that occurred near the Tuscan island of Giglio.
The Concordia crashed into a reef, took on water and capsized when Schettino steered it dangerously close to Giglio. It was an off-route maneuver that the captain is alleged to have taken in part because he wanted to impress his passengers with a close-up view of the island's twinkling lights.
Schettino told the court that as the Concordia came perilously close to Giglio's rocky coastline, he ordered his helmsman to steer the rudder to the left, but the crewman reacted too slowly and shifted to the right instead. The jagged reef sliced a 230-foot gash in the ship's hull.
"If it weren't for the helmsman's error, to not position the rudder to the left ... the swerve (toward the reef) and the collision wouldn't have happened," said Schettino, who risks 20 years in prison if convicted. Schettino also has said the reef wasn't on his charts, and that the company should shoulder some blame.
Investigators have said language problems between the Italian captain and the Indonesian-born helmsman may have played a role in the botched maneuver. A maritime expert, however, told the court that although the helmsman was slow to react and had indeed erred, in the end it didn't matter.
"The helmsman was 13 seconds late in executing the maneuver, but the crash would have happened anyway," Italian naval Adm. Giuseppe Cavo Dragone said Monday.
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. He was sentenced to one year and 8 months, but because of a law to reduce prison overcrowding, none of the five defendants is likely to serve time behind bars.
Those upset by the relatively light punishments had cause for optimism Monday. A Florence-based prosecutor lodged a formal challenge to the plea bargain deals, and Italy's highest criminal court will have to rule on it at a later date.
The ship, now resting upright on a man-made platform on the seabed, is expected to be towed away next year and broken up for scrap. In the meantime, Schettino's defense team wants experts to go inside it to determine why water pumps and an emergency generator failed to function, among other alleged mechanical problems.
"The power generator -- as are the other devices -- are fundamental to understanding what happened that night," Schettino lawyer Francesco Pepe said on his way into court. "We want to understand why they didn't work."
Lawyers for the plaintiffs also are pressing for answers to the ship's reported mechanical failures. "It is unfair that we have only one defendant," said Michelina Suriano, a lawyer representing injured parties. "He should be together with many others."