BOASTING a full head of dark, wavy hair, a deep tan and matinee idol looks, cruise ship captain Francesco Schettino could have stepped straight from central casting.
From the bridge of the R4.5 billion Costa Concordia, 52-year-old Schettino wore his uniform with pride, even if he was in the habit of leaving a button or two of his crisp white captain’s shirt undone to reveal a tuft of chest hair.
Today, Schettino is known around the world as “Captain Coward”, after allegedly deserting his vessel following last Friday’s shipwreck off the island of Giglio, leaving 11 dead and 21 missing, including a five-year-old Italian girl.
In his first hint of contrition, Captain Schettino said yesterday: “If I’ve made a mistake I’m ready to assume responsibility. But first it’s good to identify all the different aspects, the different errors. Let’s verify, then evaluate them.”
Key among those “different aspects” will be his behaviour around a young female dancer, Domnica Cemortan, 25, who was reportedly on the bridge during the critical moments after the ship ran aground.
It is thought that Cemortan, who has a two-year-old daughter, might be able to shed light on Schettino’s behaviour after he sailed close to Giglio to perform a “salute” for a former Costa ship captain and for the family of the ship’s head steward, who both had homes on the island. Italian investigators are now said to be examining whether Schettino may have been distracted.
Described by Costa Cruises, owners of the Concordia, as an “authorised passenger”, Cemortan had been hired to assist Russian passengers aboard the ship, but at the time of the accident was travelling as a paying guest on the seven-day cruise.
Cemortan yesterday denied rumours that she was Schettino’s mistress.
She also denied reports in the Italian media which claimed that while she had a ticket for the trip, she appeared not to have been assigned a cabin.
“I bought my own ticket in Italy,” she said. “I still have my cabin key in my pocket.”
Speculation had been fuelled by numerous witnesses who spoke of seeing the captain enjoying the company of a young woman on the evening of the shipwreck.
Italian passenger Angelo Fari said he and his wife had seen the captain sharing wine with an attractive blonde woman, in high spirits.
Another witness quoted in the Italian media claimed he had seen the captain drain “at least a whole decanter of wine”, which fits with the testimony of Dutch survivor Monique Maurek, a 41-year-old undertaker, who said: “The thing I’m most scandalised by is that I saw the captain spend the best part of the night drinking in the bar with a beautiful woman on his arm.”
This, despite the captain willingly co-operating with tests for alcohol and cocaine following his arrest, saying: “Go ahead. I don’t do drugs and I don’t drink, either.”
So what does Cemortan say about the alleged revelry?
“At the time of the impact I was in the restaurant with some senior officers,” she said yesterday. “The captain had stopped by earlier, but I don’t know exactly what time, maybe half an hour before.
“When the lights went out a senior officer told me to follow him to the bridge. He said that he needed help with some of the Russian passengers – there were lots on board and Russian is my second language.”
It was at this point, she says, that she was seen with Schettino.
“I was near Schettino, as I was translating everything he was saying. I was just repeating everything he said: ‘Go back to your cabins. It is just an electrical fault.’ I must have said this about 10 times. I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything else that was happening.”
Schettino is under house arrest at the R2m flat he shares with his wife, Fabiola Russo, and their daughter Rossella, 15, in the town of Meta di Sorrento on the Amalfi coast.
Schettino was so confident in his abilities that he admitted this week to navigating the channels close to Giglio by sight.
The sail-past wasn’t for the benefit of the passengers, but was instead a private affair, part of a code of courtesy shared only by the crew. This one was in honour of Mario Palombo, a famous captain who had left service in 2006.
It was also, according to the Italian media, to honour chief steward Antonello Tievoli, whose family lives on Giglio.
Tievoli was summoned to the bridge with the words: “Come and see, we’re right on top of Giglio” to which he reportedly replied, “Watch out. We’re very close to shore.”
At around the same time, 9.40pm, Schettino phoned his old commander, Palombo, and told him that he’d sound the siren for him. Palombo just had enough time to tell Schettino he wasn’t on the island before the line went dead.
Whatever the truth about his behaviour, Schettino’s career is in ruins. His lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, says his client is “broken up, troubled and saddened by the loss of life”.
How different to the swaggering figure who gave an interview to Czech newspaper Dnes in 2010.
Back then, Schettino told the paper: “I wouldn’t want to be the captain of the Titanic, forced to navigate between icebergs. But I think with the right preparation any situation can be overcome and any problem prevented.”
He continued: “I enjoy moments when something unpredictable happens, when you can diverge a bit from standard procedures.”
Those are words that “Captain Coward” must now bitterly regret. – Daily Mail
l Police said divers yesterday found a woman’s body towards the stern on the fourth of the vessel’s 17 decks, reports Sapa-AFP.