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Admiralty & Maritime Law

Captain Held in Fatal Cruise Liner Stunt Argued with Coast Guard About Leaving Ship, Reports Say

Posted Jan 17, 2012 3:59 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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In a maritime tragedy that is increasingly sounding like a scenario out of a law school exam problem, the captain of a Carnival Cruise ship that ran aground and sank off the coast of Tuscany late on Friday is being questioned by Italian authorities in a possible manslaughter case.

Capt. Francesco Schettino, 52, reportedly belatedly ordered an evacuation, then left the bridge and abandoned ship prematurely, before many passengers of the Costa Concordia. Then he resisted a coast guard order to return to his duty post on the ship, according to news accounts.

It also appears that he may have contributed to the accident by overriding automated controls to maneuver the massive vessel too close to the island of Giglio, in honor of a crew member's relatives there, as the ship sounded its sirens in a nautical equivalent of a fly-by. The Toronto Star says the planned stunt was described on Facebook beforehand.

CBS News, relying on information from an Italian newspaper, says the crew mutinied and began an evacuation without the captain's OK when it appeared necessary to do so.

An Italian prosecutor and the CEO of Costa Crociere, the Italian subsidiary of Carnival that owns the ship, blamed human error by the captain for the accident, the Telegraph reports.

Schettino is also accused of abandoning ship before his passengers, a criminal offense for which a defendant captain can be jailed for up to 12 years, if he is convicted, the Telegraph reports.

Although he reportedly has denied doing so, a transcript of a translated conversation between an Italian coast guard captain and Schettino published by the Associated Press seemingly shows Schettino, who has already gotten into a lifeboat, resisting the coast guard captain's commands to go back aboard the Concordia and oversee the rescue.

"You go aboard. It is an order. Don't make any more excuses," the coast guard captain tells Schettino at one point, as he complains that it is dark and he can do his job just as well from the lifeboat. "You have declared 'abandon ship.' Now I am in charge. You go on board! Is that clear? Do you hear me? Go, and call me when you are aboard. My air rescue crew is there."

Attorney Bruno Leporatti represents Schettino. He credited his client with saving the lives of many aboard by bringing the damaged ship close to shore, at night, in a difficult move and said yesterday in a written statement that his client is "shattered, dismayed, saddened for the loss of lives and strongly disturbed," CNN reports.

Schettino reportedly gave different accounts to investigators of what happened, at first saying that he voluntarily left the ship and then saying he was flung into the water.

An Italian judge today freed the captain from jail and placed him on house arrest, Reuters reports.

Eleven of those who were aboard the Concordia are confirmed dead and 24 are missing as rescue operations continue, the Voice of America reports.

However, the vast majority of the 4,200 passengers and crew escaped without serious injury. Some had to swim a short distance to shore in frigid water when life boats couldn't be lowered due to the angle at which the ship was listing.

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