Whether Francesco Schettino, Disgraced Captain of the Costa Concordia, is Responsible for the Shipwreck

Francesco Schettino, the captain of the Costa Concodia that crashed off Isola del Giglio, Italy in January 2012, attended a hearing in Italian court yesterday in connection to his role in the disaster. The hearing likely marks the beginning of a high-profile (and potentially lengthy) court saga that will have Francesco Schettino at its center, as the Costa Concordia captain is expected to be charged with causing the shipwreck, abandoning ship, and numerous counts of manslaughter. Eight others, including three people who worked for Costa Crociere’s crisis center, are also facing possible charges.

As we have explained in previous articles about the Costa Concordia disaster, the captain has received the overwhelming share of blame for the disaster. To salute the inhabitants of Isola del Giglio, Italy, he manually guided the vessel, thereby turning off the automatic steering. Sailing close to the island, the ship struck a reef, which is what precipitated the wreck. These are the events that happened, so it seems reasonably clear that the captain is at least partially responsible for the disaster. (Schettino himself has publicly apologized for the accident and has accepted at least some degree of responsibility.) However, it is worth noting, as Schettino’s attorneys surely will, that the captain of a vessel is not responsible for all the physical movements of a ship, and maneuvering a large cruise ship requires several different people all doing their proper part.

Schettino has also been widely condemned as a coward for leaving the ship when hundreds of desperate passengers remained on board (hence the possible “abandoning ship” charge). Hostility for Schettino perhaps reached its acme when the Italian media released a transcript of the captain’s frantic conversation with the Italian Coast Guard. The transcript doesn’t portray Schettino in a good light, as it records the captain almost pleading with the Coast Guard officer to not make him go back on board.

All that said, it is far from clear that Schettino alone caused the numerous deaths that resulted from the wreck. Indeed, he has claimed that his actions immediately following the collision with the reef actually saved hundreds of lives. In steering the ship closer to land, he prevented it from going down in deep waters, which may have caused far more people to drown. Nevertheless, 32 people died because of the disaster, and 32 is always a large number of casualties even when considered against the 4,252 people on board the ship.

And the casualties are of course what make the shipwreck a tragedy. Whomever is ultimately responsible for the deaths will face the harshest judgement. No one died when the ship first hit the reef (i.e., no one died on impact), so the 32 deaths were the result of a failed evacuation. How exactly the evacuation was conducted is a complicated question, as Schettino was in contact with the crisis center when people were frantically fleeing the ship. Because of the black box on the ship, Schettino’s end of the conversation is recorded, but investigators are of course keen to know what the people in the crisis center told him. Depending on what they said, they could be held partially or even ultimately responsible for the casualties.

The first hearing occurred only yesterday, so we are in the beginning stages of figuring out exactly what happened. How the crisis unfolded, along with who said what, will heavily influence the outcome of the trial that will almost certainly go forward.

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