Rome: He will go down in history as the captain who refused to return aboard the sinking Costa Concordia, saying it was too dark to help save lives in a tragedy that killed 32 people.
Long before Italy’s top court sealed his fate on Friday by upholding on appeal a 16-year jail term, Ray-Ban-wearing Francesco Schettino, now 56, had been marked as the villain of the piece, dubbed “Captain Coward” by the media for abandoning ship.
As terrified passengers threw themselves off the tilting cruise liner into the freezing waters after it hit an outcrop off the Tuscan island of Giglio on January 13, 2012, Schettino spent most of the night-time evacuation on a rock.
He would later claim he fell into a lifeboat when the ship rolled and was carried ashore against his will.
“He looked like a beaten dog, cold and scared,” said a taxi-driver who saw him.
Livorno port official Gregorio De Falco was hailed as a hero after a transcript emerged of him demanding the captain return to ship.
“Get on the ship and tell me how many people there are and what is happening on-board. Is that clear?” he is heard saying.
When Schettino resists, he warns: “You may have managed to save yourself but there, it will really go badly ... I will create a lot of trouble for you. Get on board, [expletive]!”
“Captain, I’m begging you,” Schettino says, to which De Falco replies: “Go ... There are already bodies, Schettino.”
“How many are there?” he asks.
“You are the one who is supposed to tell me how many, damn it!” De Falco cries.
“But do you realise that it is dark and we can’t see anything?” Schettino asks, leaving an incredulous De Falco to wonder: “What do you want to do, Schettino? Go home? It is dark so you want to go home?”
Schettino, who would later admit to recklessly ordering a sail-by “salute” near the island, did not return to the ship to run the rescue operations, which went on until 6am.
The conversation was seen in Italy as an allegory of the country’s “two souls”; on one side the “hair-creamed godfather used to breaking the rules”, on the other the military hero with rigorous ethics.
Despite discovering the crash had torn a huge hole in the liner, Schettino delayed sounding the alarm by over an hour, by which point the lifeboats on one side of the liner were unusable.
As he sat on his rock, the ship’s purser and on-board doctor saved dozens of lives, with even the island’s deputy mayor climbing on board the sinking giant to help rescue efforts.
Born into a seafaring family in Castellammare di Stabia near Naples, Schettino was hired by Costa Crociere in 2002 and enjoyed a reputation as a ladies’ man, hosting lavish dinners for glamorous guests at his table, according to crew members.
He was entertaining a blonde Moldovan woman — who was not on the official passenger list — in the moments before the crash.
During the trial he was ordered to stay within the boundaries of his hometown of Meta di Sorrento but sparked the anger of victims’ relatives by being spotted sunning himself on a friend’s yacht.
He is separated from his wife and has reportedly been living alone with a dog given to him by his daughter.
In 2015 he published a 600-page book on the disaster, called “The Truth Submerged”, which he dedicated to those who died.
According to the journalist who helped him write the book, he said “the only mistake I made was not dying too that night”.
But after Friday’s verdict, the captain accepted his fate.
“He said ‘I trust in the justice system, the verdict must be respected. I’m handing myself in right now’,” lawyer Saverio Senese said, after speaking to Schettino by telephone.