The Doomed Costa Concordia

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The  Costa Concordia  disaster, which has claimed at least 13 lives, has...

The Costa Concordia disaster, which has claimed at least 13 lives, has shocked the world. The ship is currently lying off the coast of the Italian island of Giglio (Jan. 23 photo) as the search for survivors continues.

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Maritime experts say such a catastrophe was just a matter of time. In recent...

Maritime experts say such a catastrophe was just a matter of time. In recent years, the cruise industry has been building ever-bigger ships in pursuit of profit — and disregarding the dangers the giant vessels pose. This image shows a satellite photo of the wreck.

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The ship ran aground on the evening of Friday, Jan. 13. Here, passengers wait...

The ship ran aground on the evening of Friday, Jan. 13. Here, passengers wait to be evacauted.

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Giglio residents Mario Pellegrino (left) and Giovanni Rossi saved many lives...

Giglio residents Mario Pellegrino (left) and Giovanni Rossi saved many lives after the ship went down. They helped passengers get ashore on lifeboats.

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Captain Francesco Schettino is currently under house arrest. He is accused of...

Captain Francesco Schettino is currently under house arrest. He is accused of fleeing the boat before the evacuation was completed.

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Domnica Cemortan, shown here in a Jan. 17 television interview, is a native of...

Domnica Cemortan, shown here in a Jan. 17 television interview, is a native of Moldova who was allegedly seen in the restaurant with the captain shortly before the accident happened.

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Rescue workers are still searching for survivors, but hopes of finding anyone...

Rescue workers are still searching for survivors, but hopes of finding anyone alive are rapidly fading.

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Angelika und Karlheinz Knapp from Frankfurt survived the accident. "People were...

Angelika und Karlheinz Knapp from Frankfurt survived the accident. “People were screaming and pushing and shoving,” recalls Karlheinz Knapp.

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Italian Carabinieri scuba divers examine the outside of the sunken ship. It is...

Italian Carabinieri scuba divers examine the outside of the sunken ship. It is unclear what will happen to the wreck of the Concordia.

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There are fears that the ship could slip off the underwater ledge that it is...

There are fears that the ship could slip off the underwater ledge that it is resting on and sink completely.

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A Maritime Disaster that Was Waiting to Happen

The Costa Concordia disaster, which has claimed at least 13 lives, has shocked the world. But maritime experts say such a catastrophe was just a matter of time. In recent years, the cruise industry has been building ever-bigger ships in pursuit of profit — and disregarding the dangers the giant vessels pose. By SPIEGEL Staff

On the Tuscan island of Giglio, the night sky is clear and the stars are out. Three men are sitting among the cacti and lemon trees near the cliffs behind the harbor. When the weather is nice, couples come here at sunset to make out.

 

It’s Thursday night of last week. Seven days have now passed since the Costa Concordia ran agroundoff the coast of Italy. 

The moon is shining as the men stare at the wreckage of the capsized cruise ship, not far from the harbor entrance. Two of the men are local Italians from the island, who have spent the last few days in a desperate struggle, and who have saved many lives in the process. They are comforting the third man, an Indian from Mumbai, who is still hoping for a miracle.

The Indian, Kevin Rebello, misses his brother Russell, 33. Russell was a steward on the Concordia and had been traveling the world’s oceans for the last five years. Russell had assured his family that he earned good tips in his job, and told them they shouldn’t worry about him — this type of ship couldn’t sink. The brother still believes that Russell survived in an air pocket somewhere in the belly of the ship.

The shipping company flew Kevin Rebello in, as it did other relatives of victims from places like Peru, Hungary and France. He has to be close to his brother now, he says, which is why he is waiting in this spot.

The two Italians talking to Rebello are Giovanni Rossi, 42 and Mario Pellegrini, 48. Both are sons of fishermen from Giglio. One owns a tobacco shop and the other is the deputy mayor. They too are trying to sort through their thoughts and clear their heads. They have been managing the rescue effort at the pier for the last week and have had little sleep.

Pellegrini, who is wearing metal-rimmed glasses and a blue winter coat, says he is optimistic, and points out that there have been other cases where such air bubbles have existed.

Rossi, in a baseball cap and sailor’s sweater, looks out at the fire department boats circling the ship. He doesn’t believe there are any survivors left, but of course he doesn’t say this to Rebello.

A Sound Like Thunder

He recounts how it all began on that evening of Jan. 13. He was in his small house in the old part of the town when, at 9:45 p.m., he heard something that sounded like distant thunder: a crash followed by a rumbling noise, which lasted a few seconds. Rossi was startled and jumped up from his sofa, ran to the window and looked down at the harbor.

Then he saw the Concordia. It was closer than usual, but he didn’t think anything of it. He sat back down on the sofa and hoped that the rumbling was the beginning of a thunderstorm. It hadn’t rained in weeks, and Rossi owns two hectares (five acres) of land.

Pellegrini, Rossi’s friend since kindergarten, called him a short time later. Something terrible had happened, Pellegrini shouted into the phone. The loud noise wasn’t thunder but the sound of a ship running aground on one of the rocks. The ship had slammed into rocks near the harbor, which are difficult to recognize, and now it was stuck. “I’ll be right there,” Pellegrini said breathlessly. “We have to evacuate the passengers. There must be thousands.”

The Costa Concordia, with more than 4,200 people on board, had rammed into a rocky ledge off the shore of Giglio, and it capsized soon afterwards. The death toll is now at 13 people, after a woman’s body was pulled from the ship on Sunday. About 24 are still missing, including 12 Germans.

Many here believed that a disaster of such proportions was impossible. Cruise ship industry executives are constantly touting the safety of their ships. The Concordia is more than 290 meters (950 feet) long and more than 35 meters wide. It is a ship in the post-Panamax class, which means that it is too big to traverse the Panama Canal. And yet, despite its enormous size, the giant ship ran aground off Giglio, where it now stands at a grotesque angle, looking like a tipped-over toy boot. The rocks have torn open the hull as if the ship were a tin of sardines.

Bad Omen

The Concordia was built at a cost of €450 million ($585 million). The fashion model Eva Herzigová christened the vessel in the summer of 2006, but the champagne bottle did not smash against the hull the first time around. A bad omen for suspicious mariners, it triggered gasps among guests at the ceremony. Now the salvage effort and claims for damages will consume hundreds of millions yet again. In the end, this will likely become one of the most expensive shipping disasters of all time. The total loss could amount to $1 billion, a London banker estimated last week.

The images of the disaster went around the world like a shock wave last week. A dream vessel had turned into a nightmare. It was almost as if a bomb had exploded in Disneyland.

It is a story of serious recklessness and swagger, of a man’s grotesque mistake and of irresponsible maneuvers. This, at any rate, is the way executives in the cruise business want to portray it. In fact, however, the case of the Costa Concordia is a warning sign for the entire global industry.

It is also a story of competitive pressure in the business, of billions in profits and of a booming market in which only those who keep building bigger and bigger ships can keep up. The largest ships can already carry 8,000 people, and soon the capacity will be 10,000 — despite the fact that maritime experts continually point out the perils of these floating cities.

According to the German website of the Italian Costa shipping company, the Concordia was an “impressive and magnificent” cruise ship. It describes the ship as a “temple of pleasure” that “will take your breath away,” with 1,500 cabins, 13 bars and four swimming pools. The guest, the site reads, could expect to experience “a one-of-a-kind vacation with an endless number of experiences.”

‘Moments when Something Unpredictable Happens’

The ship was commanded by Captain Francesco Schettino, 52, a handsome man with the look of an aging gigolo. He grew up on Italy’s Amalfi coast. “He loves the sea,” says his sister Giulia. “He has always worked as an officer.”

Schettino joined Costa Cruises in 2002, first as a second officer. Four years later he was promoted to captain, and put in command of the brand-new Concordia.

Some of his colleagues see him as a daredevil. Last year, Schettino told a Czech journalist: “I enjoy moments when something unpredictable happens, when you can diverge a bit from standard procedures.”

Almost exactly four weeks before the disaster, he demonstrated his approach to his crew. The Concordia was at anchor in the port of Marseille, while a storm with wind speeds of 50 to 60 knots raged out in the open water. “We expected that we would not sail that day,” recalled officer Martino Pellegrino.

But Schettino assembled the entire crew on the bridge and ordered them to set sail. His words were met with icy silence among the officers. “We looked at each other,” said Pellegrino, “but we didn’t have the energy to disagree.” Schettino then drove the Concordia through the choppy waters at full throttle. The 56,000-horsepower engines drove the 50,000-ton ship through the breakers, a show that few other men could pull off. Everything went well, and it seemed that Schettino was in control of his ship and knew what he was doing out in the open water.

The problem was that he didn’t have enough fear of the sea.

Escaping on Crutches

The retiree Karlheinz Knapp, 64, and his wife Angelika, 62, live in a small house in the Oberrad neighborhood of Frankfurt. The Knapps have seen their fair share of cruise ships, and have visited more than 100 countries over the years. They were on another cruise in December, a week in the western Mediterranean on board the Serena, another Costa ship. They are members of the “Costa Club,” the company’s bonus program.

For their voyage on board the Concordia, a seven-night cruise, the Knapps paid €449 per person. They stayed in interior cabin 2353, with two beds and a table, but no window.

Karlheinz Knapp, who had an operation on his left knee last September, still walks on crutches. It almost cost him his life. “I often have to think about the passengers in wheelchairs,” Knapp says today. “What happened to them? You don’t want to think about it.”

For the Knapps, the last part of their voyage began with dinner. On that night, the Concordia was supposed to sail from Civitavecchia near Rome to Savona. The couple decided not to attend the magician’s show, as they usually did. Instead, they went to their cabin to pack. The suitcases had to be placed in front of the cabins, ready for pickup, by 1 a.m. The Knapps were to disembark in Savona at 6 a.m.

 

The Concordiasailed throughout the night, traveling on a north-northwesterly course, in a light wind and on a soft groundswell. The captain wanted to pass to the east of the small island of Giglio, near the town of Giglio Porto. But Schettino himself was apparently not on the bridge. 

A passenger would later tell an Italian newspaper that he had seen the captain in the ship’s finest restaurant, wearing a dark uniform and in the company of a blonde about half his age. The couple were laughing and drinking wine, “at least half a decanter,” according to the passenger.

The woman was Domnica Cemortan, 25, a native of Moldova, one of the many Costa employees from very poor countries. Apparently the captain took her with him to the bridge soon afterwards, perhaps hoping to impress her. She would later say that she did not leave the bridge again until shortly before midnight. And she would also defend Schettino, saying that he had performed exceptionally well and had saved lives.

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Part 2:

Part 2: ‘We’ll Sound the Siren for You’

It was shortly after 9:30 p.m. when the drama began. The Concordia was bearing down on Giglio at 15 knots, which was much too fast. Schettino, the first officer, the second officer and a female officer were standing on the bridge. The captain changed course by a few degrees, passing very close by the island.

Schettino would later tell investigators that he had intended to salute a great old man: Mario Palombo, a retired captain. Palombo was at sea for 43 years, including 23 years with Costa. Schettino served as a first officer under Palombo. And Palombo has a house on Giglio.

While the ship was bearing on the island, Schettino called Palombo on his mobile phone. He allegedly told him to look outside and that they would shortly be sailing past his island. “We’ll sound the siren for you,” he said.

Italian mariners refer to this greeting from a passing ship as a “bow.” This would be the last bow from on board the Concordia. Palombo had apparently just called back to say that he wasn’t on Giglio at the moment, but on the mainland, when the ship ran aground and the connection was lost. It was 9:45 p.m., and at that moment, about 50 meters below the bridge, a rock was tearing a massive hole into the left side of the Concordia. The hole was about 70 meters long, and hundreds of tons of water began pouring into the ship.

‘Up to My Neck’

Palombo immediately called a friend on Giglio to find out what had happened. The friend told him that he could see a ship off the shore, but that it was much too close. Palombo tried to reach Schettino again, and then he allegedly called the shipping company.

Immediately after the crash, as Officer Giovanni Iaccarino would later testify, Schettino ordered him to climb down into the engine room. When he got there, the room was full of water. “The water was up to my neck,” Iaccarino said. He saw that the engines had stopped running and the pumps were not working, although at least the backup generator was on. The officer called the bridge and, shouting over the noise in the background, told the captain what he could see. At that point, Schettino should have given the order to bring the passengers to safety.

But when a Costa executive called Schettino at 10:05 p.m., and again two minutes later, Schettino allegedly told him that there were a few problems. This hasn’t been proven beyond a doubt. Witnesses sometimes don’t remember things correctly, especially when it comes to the question of culpability and when the alarm should have been sounded, and by whom.

Given all the things the witnesses said in the days after the disaster, it would seem to be a case of negligent homicide. In the end, only the Italian courts will be able to decide who exactly gave which orders, and when. Italian prosecutors are trying to determine whether Schettino did in fact react incorrectly, or whether the shipping company had hoped to postpone what would likely be a very costly evacuation for as long as possible.

But one thing is clear: Schettino did not say that he had just wrecked his €450-million ship, and that people were about to lose their lives. He didn’t send a mayday signal either, at least not until 10:58 p.m.

Problems with the Data

In the days after the disaster, Schettino admitted that he had wanted to send a greeting to his friend on the island, and that something had gone wrong during the maneuver. But his statements on the course of events were contradictory. On one occasion, he said that he had been “navigating by sight,” but before that he had said that the rock did not appear on maps.

This could very well be true. Although the rock is clearly visible on traditional paper nautical maps, modern ship bridges are equipped with monitors that use the so-called ECDIS system. It combines electronic nautical charts with data from the satellite navigation receiver and the radar equipment. It also uses the ship’s sonar and the relatively new AIS anti-collision system.

But the high-tech system is not perfect. “ECDIS representations are only as good as the data you enter. And there are serious problems with the user interface and the ergonomics,” says Andrew Linington, a spokesman for Nautilus International, the union for maritime professionals. Sometimes the digital charts made by the various manufacturers are not 100 percent correct. For example, some errors only appear at certain magnification levels. The investigators will have to clarify this.

The equipment can also be set to issue alarm signals to warn against shallows, a ship deviating from its course, other ships or danger zones — producing a cacophony of noise that encourages some captains to simply ignore the signals.

Costa Cruises, at any rate, is blaming Schettino. The fact that he diverged from the planned course was the result of “a maneuver that was not approved, not authorized nor communicated to Costa,” the company’s chairman said. He insisted that his ships would never come closer than 500 meters from Giglio.

The Boring Ocean

But that is not the whole story. Part of the reality is that many cruise-ship companies are faced with bitter competition and gamble with the lives of their passengers as a result.

The Concordia had already passed the island at very close range once before, last August. In fact, it was even closer that time, only 230 meters from the shore, which is highly dangerous for a ship that is 290 meters long. But that time the Concordia was coming from a slightly different angle.

Specialists with the insurance company Lloyd’s of London keep the position data of ships on file, which allows them to reconstruct every voyage. On that day last August, the officers in charge of the Concordia took a great risk, because there was a big festival in the island’s tiny harbor that evening and they wanted the ship to be part of it.

Cruise lines want to offer their passengers something special, because the open ocean is in fact pretty boring to look at. That was why, for example, Schettino also sailed the Concordia close past the island of Procida near Naples in August 2010.

In the wake of the Concordia disaster, the Italian government is now drafting a ban on reckless maneuvers in overly tight spaces. This could be disastrous for the booming industry, which is raking in billions.

In the last five years, European shipyards have delivered almost 50 new ships to shipping companies, each one more enormous and powerful than the next.

Massive Sales

The worldwide market leader is Carnival Cruises, with 25 subsidiaries and more than 100 cruise ships. Carnival owns both the ill-fated Costa and Aida, a company based in the northern German port city of Rostock.

The owner of this cruise-ship empire is Micky Arison, one of the most colorful figures in the industry. Arison, who also owns the Miami Heat basketball team, has an estimated net worth of more than $4 billion. His father Ted was one of the founders of Carnival.

The younger Arison started his career selling bingo cards on his father’s ships. “When I took over operations in 1979, we had $44 million in sales and $12 million in profits,” he says. Not bad, but merely a drop in the proverbial ocean compared to today’s sales of about $16 billion, with a company that employs 85,000 people.

Close to 19 million people a year go on cruises worldwide. Germany is the third-largest market, after the United States and Great Britain, with more than 1.3 million customers in 2011 — 48 percent more than it was three years ago.

‘Huge Bang’

When the Concordia ran aground off Giglio, the Knapps had just closed their suitcases. Suddenly the water bottles on the small table in their cabin started to move slightly. “There was a huge bang a moment later,” says Angelika Knapp. “The lights flickered for a moment, and everything was flying around.”

“For some reason I thought to myself it sounded like we had been hit by a torpedo,” says Karlheinz Knapp. He is familiar with the stories of the sinking of the Bismarck and other maritime disasters. “It reminded me of those scenes immediately, even though, at that moment, it would never have occurred to me that this ship could sink.”

The Knapps stayed calm. Angelika put on some trousers. “The lights were still on at that time. We opened the door. All the people were looking out of their cabins. We could see the lights on the coast through the window of an outside cabin. Well, that’s comforting, I thought to myself,” says her husband. A steward walked past the cabin. Then the first announcement was made in several different languages, including German.

“They reassured us and said that no one had to worry, that it was just a technical problem that would be fixed soon,” says Angelika Knapp. Minutes later, the lights went out and the cabin was plunged into darkness. The emergency lights came on in the hallway.

‘We Have a Blackout’

At 10:12 p.m., an official with the harbor master’s office apparently called the bridge for the first time. “Are you experiencing problems on board?” he asked.

A member of the Costa Concordia’s crew — it is unclear whether it was the captain — answered: “We’ve had a blackout, we are checking the conditions on board.”

The official went on to ask the nature of the problem. “The police of Prato have received a phone call from the relatives of a sailor who said that during the dinner everything was falling on his head.”

Crew member: “We have a blackout and we are checking the conditions on board.”

Coastguard official: “The passengers say they have been told to put on the life vests. Is this correct?”

Crew member: “I repeat, we are checking the conditions of the blackout, we are checking the blackout.”

Keeping Calm

Karlheinz Knapp urged his wife to hurry. The couple behaved completely by the book. He opened the safe, and they took out their passports, wallets and house keys. They put on shoes, slipped into their winter jackets, windbreakers with reflective strips. The Knapps didn’t pay much attention to the ensuing announcements, which urged the passengers not to panic and informed them that there was “a problem with the generator.” They made their way to the lifeboats.

From the emergency exercise that had been conducted on their first day on board, they remembered the “Assembly Station A” meeting point on the fourth deck. The passageways were still empty. But the ship was slowly tilting to the side, centimeter by centimeter. “It wasn’t as if we were sliding around.” They positioned themselves in front of the lifeboats, and Karlheinz Knapp looked around for an officer, “but there were none there. No one knew what to do.”

The bridge was in chaos. Schettino reportedly performed a maneuver that could either be called courageous or crazy, depending on its outcome. He tried to turn the Concordia around in the bay near Giglio, as he would later state, until it ran aground very close to the shore, so that people could swim to land. But the ship listed during the maneuver, from left (port) to right (starboard) — and kept listing. Rescuers question Schettino’s heroic tale, saying that the controls were no longer sufficiently operational to perform such a maneuver.

In any event, the Concordia listed. Most modern cruise ships are not overly stable. They can become wobbly. “Tests have shown us that these ships are wobbly,” says Tony Minns of the Nautilus union. Most have too little draft, because passengers also want to put into small, idyllic ports, ideally on a ship bigger than the port itself.

Wake-Up Call

At the same time, cruise ships are very tall, to accommodate all the nightclubs, swimming pools and water slides. Only 8 meters of the Concordia are submerged, while it protrudes 62 meters above the surface of the water. For “commercial” reasons, Minns says disapprovingly.

The ships are sufficiently stable for normal operations, but things can get tight very quickly if something goes wrong. For example, when a lot of water floods into the ship, it can slosh back and forth below deck and, because of the enormous weight of the water, push to the ship to the side.

“We had always cautioned that it was a case not of if, but when a major accident involving a huge passenger ship would take place,” wrote Andrew Linington of Nautilus in an opinion piece for the Guardian. “For many of us working in the shipping industry, it is more of a surprise that it hasn’t happened earlier.” The Costa Concordia accident should serve as a “wake-up call for the industry,” he concludes.

Once the giant ships, with their thousands of passengers, capsize they quickly turn into death traps, because it makes it very difficult for the sailors to lower the lifeboats. Cruise ships ought to be designed in such a way that “there is a reasonable chance of getting all passengers and crew members off the ship,” says Minns. The danger lies in the sheer size of the vessels. The bigger the ship, the more people crowd through the corridors during a major fire, the more confusing the jumble of languages becomes and the more difficult it is for the officers to control the ship.

Profit Motive

Nevertheless, these floating recreational palaces just keep getting bigger. In December 2009, the American cruise line Royal Caribbean placed the world’s largest cruise ship into service. The 225,282-ton Oasis of the Seas has 16 decks and is 360 meters long and 64 meters wide, making it about twice as large as the Costa Concordia. It is much larger than the US aircraft carrier George Washington and more than twice as heavy.

The Oasis carries 6,296 passengers and 2,394 crew members. It has entire neighborhoods, and its pedestrian zone is a copy of South Beach in Miami. “The bigger the ship, the more profitably it can be operated,” says Helge Grammerstorf, a former first officer on the MS Astor, which seems tiny in comparison.

Large ships have lower per-passenger costs, according to Grammerstorf, which is why even bigger ships are now on the drawing board. “Of course, the bigger a ship is, the more difficult it is to evacuate it,” says Grammerstorf, whose company Seaconsult now advises the industry. In the event of a fire, for example, “there could quickly be thousands of deaths.”

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Part 3:

Part 3: ‘People Were Screaming and Pushing’

At about 10:30 p.m., the officers mutinied on the bridge of the capsizing Concordia. Apparently only one officer, a Greek, was still on Schettino’s side. The others decided that Roberto Bosio, a captain from Liguria and who was on board as a guest, would assume command of the ship. Bosio, anxious to begin the evacuation immediately, started issuing orders.

The loudspeakers finally sounded the emergency alarm at 10:58 p.m., triggering a panic among the passengers. “People were screaming and pushing and shoving,” says retiree Karlheinz Knapp. He lost balance while on his crutches, and suddenly he found himself in the air between the railing and a lifeboat. Then he fell into the boat. Someone kicked him in the head, and finally the boat took off.

The first passengers soon landed on the island’s jetty. Some women were still wearing the evening dresses and high-heeled shoes they had worn to dinner. Men pulled out digital cameras from their fanny packs and took snapshots of each other in their life vests.

Taking the Tiller

Giovanni Rossi, the man who had been looking forward to thunderstorms when the Concordia went aground, was standing on the pier, staring incredulously at the wreck. He and Pellegrini, the deputy mayor, jumped into the first lifeboat that arrived. The name, “Concordia 1,” was painted on the bow. It was a white boat with a yellow superstructure.

Two kitchen helpers from the cruise ship were steering the lifeboat. They are among the low-wage workers from developing countries that cruise ship guests rarely see, because they are supposed to remain as invisible as possible while they do their jobs.

Of course, the two kitchen helpers had never steered a boat in their lives, which Pellegrini recognized immediately. He took the tiller and, together with Rossi and the kitchen helpers, drove the boat back out to the wreck. When they reached the Concordia after a few minutes, Pellegrini moored the boat to ropes dangling from the side of the ship. People were gathering above, getting into the boats.

Pellegrini and his friend Rossi escorted their first 40 passengers to the safety of the harbor, where half of the island’s residents had already gathered. The women brought hot tea in thermos bottles, and the men brought warm blankets.

‘Go Aboard, Damn It’

Captain Schettino also fled from the half-sunken ship. He would claim differently later on, because, under the code of honor, a captain should always be the last person to leave his ship. Schettino said that while helping passengers lower a lifeboat into the water, he slipped and fell into the boat.

He was still carrying his mobile phone. It rang, and Gregorio de Falco from the harbor authority in Livorno was on the other end. The telephone call has the potential to go down in seafaring history.

De Falco: “Hello. Hello.”

Schettino: “Good evening, captain.”

De Falco: “Hello, I’m de Falco, from Livorno. I am speaking with the commander?”

Schettino: “I’m Commander Schettino.”

De Falco: “Listen Schettino, there are people trapped aboard, you go with your lifeboat under the prow of the ship on the port side and you go aboard the ship using the rope ladder. You go aboard and you tell me how many people there are. Is it clear? (…)”

Schettino: “So, I’ll tell you something…”

(…)

De Falco: “Listen, there are people going down from the prow using the rope ladder; you take that rope ladder on the opposite side, you go aboard and you tell me the number of people and what they have on board. Is that clear? You tell me whether there are children, women or people needing assistance. And you tell me the number of each of these categories. Is that clear? Schettino, maybe you saved yourself from the sea, but I’ll make you pay for sure. Go aboard, damn it.”

Of course, Schettino did not go on board.

Scrambling for Spots

When hardly any lifeboats were arriving in the small harbor anymore, Pellegrini sensed that something was wrong. Because of the angle of the ship, which was tilting more and more to the side, the remaining lifeboats were apparently stuck in their davits. He saw people scrambling for the last few spots, and he heard them screaming.

He climbed the pilot ladder up the ship’s side. On board, passengers were running around in a panic and children were getting in the way. Pellegrini still didn’t see any officers. He walked around and shouted: “Women and children first, all in a row, hold each other’s hands.” Then he helped the desperate passengers down to where Rossi was waiting on board a lifeboat below.

There were helicopters hovering above the ship, piloted by members of de Falco’s team. At least one helicopter had a night vision camera on board. The grainy images would later reveal how risky Pellegrini’s rescue effort was. The passengers looked like a column of ants as they lowered themselves down the sloping side of the ship on a safety rope. Pellegrini, standing at the top, practically had to push some of the passengers down the rope, into Rossi’s arms.

There was another hero in the chaos of the capsizing ship. Giuseppe Girolamo, a 30-year-old Italian, worked for Costa as a musician. Girolamo looks like the rock star he once wanted to become, with his wild-looking shoulder-length hair, beard and dark eyes. He was wearing his “Hard Rock Café” T-shirt on that evening.

Girolamo was normally a bass player, but on board he played drums in a band called Dee Dee Smith. He made it to one of the lifeboats when the Costa Concordia capsized. But then someone handed a frightened child into the boat, and Girolamo gave the child his spot. The last people who saw him alive were the shivering passengers, as they looked back at him from the lifeboat.

Pitch Black

Shortly after midnight, the human chain on the side of the ship, which was almost horizontal by then, began to thin out. Most passengers had already made it to safety, but Pellegrini feared that the ship was about to sink altogether.

He grabbed a young doctor, the only crew member who helped him. The two men tried to reach the other side, which was now under water. They searched the corridors, standing almost vertically on the walls. Pellegrini found a megaphone and shouted into the darkness: “Is there anyone still there? Everyone off the ship!”

Two women shouted from a corridor in the middle of the ship. Pellegrini threw a rope into the corridor, which was now a pitch-black shaft. The women managed to grab the rope and Pellegrini pulled them up. They were completely soaked and said that they had been stuck between floating pieces of furniture. The last person he was able to pull up was a Peruvian woman who had worked as a bartender in one of the restaurants. Together, Pellegrini and the woman slid along the steel panels of the hulls, stumbling over each other and grabbing onto ropes to avoid being blown off the ship by the icy wind.

Pellegrini, his hands bloody by now, cut the tarps on the lifeboats into strips so that the shivering passengers could cover themselves. While still out at the wreck, he let them use his mobile phone so that they could call relatives in Great Britain, Germany and the United States to tell them that they were still alive.

‘Like a Beaten Dog’

Frankfurt retiree Karlheinz Knapp and his wife were already in safety by then. They were given shelter in the local church, surrounded by 700 passengers and crewmembers recovering from the shock. Some who had fallen into the water had covered themselves in the altar boys’ robes, and children were sleeping on the floor. “Somehow you manage to keep on functioning. Being scared to death like that releases unimagined strength,” says Knapp.

Schettino also made it to land safely. According to a taxi driver who says that he took the captain to a hotel on Saturday morning, Schettino asked him where he could buy socks. “He looked like a beaten dog, cold and scared.”

At the end of last week, Schettino was under house arrest at his home in Meta di Sorrento. The court did not consider him to be a flight risk. But the public prosecutor in Grosseto would prefer to lock up “Capitano Dilettante,” the derogatory nickname the Italian press has given Schettino. The captain could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison for offenses including negligent homicide.

At some point Schettino called his mother to tell her that a tragedy had occurred. But that tragedy still isn’t over, not by a long shot. The heavy fuel oil from his ship, for example, is a black substance full of carcinogens, phenols, heavy metals and sulfur compounds: the waste product from the production of diesel and gasoline. Refineries sell the material for much less than diesel, and the white dream ships burn this toxic waste at sea.

Thick as Honey

The Costa Concordia has about 2,400 tones of heavy fuel oil on board. The hazardous cargo threatens the conservation area around Giglio, which is also home to whales and dolphins. The oil has to be removed from the tanks in the Costa Concordia as quickly as possible. But at the current temperatures, heavy oil is as viscous as honey. The salvage company hired to pump out the oil will have to heat it to 45 to 50 degrees Celsius (113 to 123 degrees Fahrenheit) before it can begin pumping.

Rescue divers have been carefully making their way around the ship throughout the entire week. They reportedly found five bodies in a restaurant on Deck 4, floating in the water in sports coats, evening dresses and life vests. There was an evacuation assembly area nearby, but when the ship capsized, the restaurant was suddenly 20 meters beneath the surface.

What will happen to the wreck of the Concordia remains completely unclear. The shipping company is expected to submit a salvage plan as quickly as possible. In the ideal scenario, specialists could weld the tear in the ship’s hull shut, because large sections of it are above the surface. Then they could try to upend the ship with balloons and cranes. If that worked, tugboats could possibly tow away the Concordia.

It’s more likely that specialists will have to cut apart the ship with blowtorches in the waters off Giglio. It could take a long time. The wreck is still resting on an underwater ledge. But it keeps moving, slipping toward the open sea, centimeter by centimeter. A few meters farther along, there is a steep drop in the ocean floor, first to 70 meters and then to 90 meters. In a storm, the ship could slip off the ledge and sink completely.

Photos Everywhere

The mother of musician Girolamo, who gave up his spot on a lifeboat for a child, has come to the island. She has posted photos of her son everywhere, and asks that anyone who sees him should contact her.

Last week, the Knapps were safely back in Frankfurt. An employee with Costa Cruises has already called to tell them that they will be reimbursed for everything. And if they make up their minds by March 31, “we would also get a free cruise,” says Angelika Knapp. “We will think about that in our own time.” Five passengers who were sitting on the bus with them on the trip to Italy were still missing late last week.

And Indian national Kevin Rebello was still sitting in the Giglio harbor, waiting for the divers to find his brother Russell, who he hopes is still alive, somewhere in an air pocket beneath the deck of the Concordia. “Russell is athletic,” says Rebello. “He is used to fasting.” He keeps glancing at his mobile phone. “Maybe he’ll call in a moment.”

REPORTED BY MARKUS DEGGERICH, FIONA EHLERS, ÖZLEM GEZER, CLEMENS HÖGES, SIMONE KAISER AND JANKO TIETZ

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,810761-3,00.html

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