Rome - The captain of the capsized Costa Concordia, Francesco Schettino, has made worldwide headlines as the “man to hate” after seemingly abandoning his ship and leaving passengers to fend for themselves.
But now - while rescuers were suspending their search on the stricken 290-metres vessel as it sank further - a new hero is proving the man of the moment in Italy.
He is Gregorio De Falco, 46, the Livorno port authority chief, who was on duty when the Costa Concordia ran aground off the Tuscan island of Giglio.
Outraged by the events unfolding on that fateful night, De Falco yelled to the captain: “Go back aboard, damn it!”
Media all over the world have carried his urgent demands along with Schettino's puzzling replies, such as: “No, I'm not on board, because the ship is sinking.”
Italian social networks on the internet are singing the praises of De Falco, who tirelessly coordinated the rescue effort.
The tragedy had made De Falco “burst into tears with anger,” his commanding officer told the Rome-based daily La Repubblica.
“Yes, I'm crying,” the port authority chief was quoted as saying. “But I don't think I'm being weak. Compassion is not weakness.”
His attitude is in stark contrast to that of the captain now being blamed for the disaster and whom Italian prosecutors are seeking to indict.
Unable to conceal his anger on the night of the accident, De Falco told Schettino: “Go aboard and tell me how many people are on board - whether there are women and children and people in need.”
A volley of expletives and threats followed as the port authority chief tried to get the captain to follow his orders.
The internet community began hailing De Falco as a hero even while he was still coordinating the rescue effort. Headlines appeared on Twitter such as, “De Falco for president” and “Santo subito” (“Saint now!”), to the amazement of his wife.
“People who simply live up to their everyday responsibilities are suddenly becoming idols, personalities and heroes in this country,” she commented with some concern.
De Falco himself said modestly: “My voice in Livorno was that of all seafarers.”
Slim-built and slightly balding, De Falco - like Schettino - hails from Italy's Campania region. He grew up on the island of Ischia and moved to northern Italy to start his career.
He worked in Liguria, and was the port authority chief in Santa Margherita Ligure for three years, before taking up his post in Livorno.
The enthusiasm over De Falco makes it seem as if Italy had been in need of a hero as it struggles to come to terms with one of its worst economic crises.
De Falco is showing his countrymen that some people actually do abide by the law, in stark contrast to “bunga bunga”, a Twitter commentator wrote in a reference to the scandals characterising the era of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
De Falco is the face of a better Italy and a symbol of hope, commentators said - even if the country was still “full of Schettinos.”
“But why is someone who does his job and sticks to the rules suddenly a hero in Italy?” one internet commentator wondered.
Such observations are prompting Italians to question their self-image - but the hero himself does not want to be one.
“Please stop talking about me,” Italian media quoted De Falco as saying. “It is my job to save lives.” - Sapa-dpa