GROSSETO, Italy – Francesco Schettino, accused by survivors, politicians and the media of dereliction of duty after the 2012 shipwreck of the Costa Concordia cruise liner under his command killed 32, testified in his own defence for the first time Tuesday, defiant and gesticulating under questioning from Italian prosecutors.
The testimony had a theatrical flair, with Schettino hunched over a table on a stage, at times studying a photo of the ship’s radar, while prosecutors in the front row of the auditorium played bit-by-bit audio segments from the ship’s bridge the night of Jan. 13, 2012, when the cruise liner hit rocks off the Tuscan island of Giglio, tearing a huge gash in the hull.
The trial is being held in a theatre in the nearby town of Grosseto due to widespread interest: 4,200 people from 70 countries fled the ship as it listed. A panel of judges sat centre stage.
Much of the day’s testimony was technical, and Schettino’s answers were so detailed that at times the prosecutor hurried him along, saying, “You’ve already explained that enough.”
Schettino is charged with manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship. If convicted, he faces more than 20 years’ imprisonment. He is being tried alone, after five other defendants reached plea deals.
He denies abandoning ship, saying he was thrown in the water as the ship rolled on its side. The exchange that has most defined his image is a recording of a port official in colorful, angry language ordering him back on board to oversee the evacuation of passengers.
During his testimony, Schettino said he allowed the approach to Giglio “to kill three birds with one stone” – pay homage to a retired commander living there, who it turned out was on the mainland; do a favour for the maitre d’, who was from Giglio; and for marketing reasons.
Prosecutors, however, contested Schettino’s notion that sailing close to the island was good for the cruise company, noting that passengers had not been advised and that had they looked out that night they would have only seen the island as a shadow in the dark.
Schettino denied a more salacious motive: taking the route near Giglio to impress a Moldovan dancer he had brought to the bridge. The woman has testified the two were lovers.
Schettino’s defence says no one died in the collision itself, but the failure of a backup generator and supposedly watertight compartments that were flooded created problems during the evacuation.
Although his face is well-known throughout Italy, Schettino was granted a motion not to have his image broadcast giving testimony. TV footage of the courtroom cut off the stage-left where he sat, and just his voice was heard, at times slipping into Neapolitan dialect.
Schettino is scheduled to continue giving evidence on Wednesday. The trial as a whole is expected to continue into the new year.