Has the former master of Costa Concordia been made a scapegoat?

18 December 2018

The case of former Costa Concordia master Francesco Schettino, now behind bars in an Italian prison, is still not closed. As ANDREW LININGTON reports, a Norwegian safety expert is leading efforts to take an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights…

Two years into his 16-year jail sentence, Francesco Schettino – the former master of the cruiseship Costa Concordia – has raised questions about the fairness of the trial that saw him convicted of multiple manslaughter, causing a maritime accident and abandoning ship before all passengers and crew had been evacuated.

In a letter written from prison in Rome, Capt Schettino points to the absence of maritime knowledge in the proceedings that led to his imprisonment, with the court lacking an understanding of the principles of seamanship and of crucial factors that led to the accident in which 32 passengers and crew died in January 2012.

Relevant arguments were 'neglected and misinterpreted', he complains, as 'nobody had nautical legacy and practical experience for understanding the various limitations aroused after the collision for handling the emergency on a mega-cruise ship'.

His letter questions whether the behaviour and conduct of someone can be properly judged unless there is adequate familiarity with their working environment and professional expertise.

'The theoretical knowledge is valid to examine the failures after any occurrence that takes place and subsequently implementing the appropriate corrective actions,' Capt Schettino argues. 'It is not supposed to analyse the behaviour and conduct held by another person without having the prerequisites and the capability to place oneself in that particular situation.'

Capt Schettino says he believes his experiences as a seafarer have served as 'a sort of preparation for withstanding the overwhelming memories of the accident and for accepting my life today'.

He says he feels 'morally compelled' to repeatedly analyse the accident and to offer insights that would prevent a similar accident in future. 'Few captains lived a similar experience, and I sincerely wish that none will ever go through anything similar,' he adds.

Capt Schettino says it was too simplistic to blame the Costa Concordia disaster on the ship's deviation from the standard route. He says the accident, and others since, demonstrate the need for more attention to be paid to the way in which bridge teams interact, communicate and share information.

The way the Schettino case has been handled could adversely affect recruitment and retention of seafarers

Meanwhile, a group of maritime professionals from across Europe are continuing to lobby to overturn Capt Schettino's conviction, arguing that 'the unbalanced criminalisation of the captain, alone judged to be solely responsible for the total operation of the ship, is undermining the basic intention of IMO's ISM Code'.

In an open letter sent to the Italian maritime administration and Carnival Cruises president Arnold Donald, they warn that the way in which the case has been handled could adversely affect the recruitment and retention of seafarers, and damage the cruise shipping industry.

The letter points out that charges against the cruise company and other members of the bridge team were dropped as a result of plea bargaining, leaving Capt Schettino as the only person taking the full legal consequences of the disaster.

'We claim that the transfer of the operational responsibility from the company to the captain by plea bargains is a clear breach of the requirements of the ISM Code,' it adds.

Those supporting Capt Schettino's move to bring a further appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, after an appeal to the Italian Supreme Court to reopen the case was rejected, include former accident investigators, maritime education lecturers, safety experts, and a former shipping company superintendent.

Norwegian casualty investigator Arne Sagen said it was wrong that criminal action had been taken against Capt Schettino on the basis of an ‘inappropriate’ investigation by the Italian authorities which had failed to properly explain what had happened and why.

Mr Sagen said analysis showed the Italian investigation report was partly contradictory and 'extremely inaccurate, incomplete and biased in disfavour of the captain'.

The treatment of the master had amounted to 'a grave misconception of the ISM Code', and failed to follow the Code's intention of giving the ship operating company the overall responsibility for safety culture, routes and procedures, he added.

The investigation had also failed to adequately address issues around the use of electronic charts onboard Costa Concordia, and the ECDIS training given to the bridge team, Mr Sagen noted. He said a computer simulation of the accident had been developed, taking information from a range of sources including the voyage data recorder. As well as confirming that the Indonesian helmsman had incorrectly turned the ship to starboard after he misunderstood Capt Schettino's order to turn hard port, Mr Sagen said the simulation had also raised questions about the final manoeuvring of the vessel.

The analysis of the Italian investigation report also questions its approach to evaluating the qualifications and training of all members of the bridge team and whether the company's bridge team procedures were appropriate and ship-specific.

It argues that the investigation's focus upon human errors was made without the necessary deeper systemic analysis of errorinducing workplace conditions and organisation.

It also points to shortcomings in the report's consideration of factors such as the status of watertight doors and the failure of life-saving appliances.

The way in which Capt Schettino has been singled out for blame raises the risk of other masters being criminalised after maritime accidents, Mr Sagen argues. His treatment by the police and other authorities – at a time when he was probably suffering from post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of the incident – failed to reflect the principles set down in an EU directive and international guidelines for fair treatment.

Mr Sagen said Italy's practice of giving a criminal investigation precedence over statutory safety investigations was out of line with EU principles, and the ISM Code had not been properly implemented in the Italian judicial system.

In an article in Maritime Risk International last month, he also questioned whether cruise shipping was safer as a result of the Costa Concordia accident. 'Did we really learn what we should and what we needed to gain most from this unfortunate event? The industry needs to examine the investigation into this incident and address the safety questions that are raised, to ensure the risk of a repeat tragedy is minimised.'