Costa Concordia Captain Francesco Schettino to board ship grounded off Italy coast for 1st time since disaster

8:10 AM, Feb 27, 2014   |    comments
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GIGLIO, Italy (CBS NEWS) -- Captain Francesco Schettino stepped aboard the Costa Concordia Thursday for the first time since it capsized off Italy's coast with him at the controls more than two years ago.

When the vast cruise ship ground into the rocky shore of the Italian island of Giglio on Jan. 13, 2012, 32 people lost their lives. The Costa Concordia has been hoisted upright and secured by salvage workers and is now sitting solidly on two underwater outcrops of rock off the coastline.

Schettino arrived on Giglio aboard a ferry from Italy's mainland Tuesday night, after the Tuscan court agreed to let him go back onto the ship. The court in Grosseto, where Schettino is facing charges of manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing a shipwreck, authorized an inspection on the Costa Concordia to be carried out by a group of experts and attended by the former captain.

He stepped onto the stricken vessel at about 10:30 a.m. local time (4:30 a.m. Eastern).

Specifically, experts will be examining an electrical generator in the ship's engine room and the bridge. Judge Giovanni Puliatti stressed that Schettino was being allowed onto the ship "as a defendant, not a consultant" and therefore that he could board the ship to help investigators, but not to ask questions.

The ship's emergency generator is believed to have malfunctioned on that fateful night. The generator is responsible for providing power and managing a series of mechanisms on the ship in case of failure, including the mechanical arms for the lifeboats and the elevators.

Thursday is the second inspection authorized by the court since the beginning of the year in an effort to determine whether any factors beyond human error contributed to the loss of life in the disaster.

The first court-requested inspection was carried out on January 23. Just one day before that, two employees of the Concordia's operator, Costa Crociere, are believed to have inspected the emergency power unit, boarding the vessel illegally after it was sealed by investigators. That has led Grosseto prosecutors to open a separate investigation into Costa Concordia guardian Franco Porcellacchia and Captain Camillo Casella.

Until now Schettino has been the sole defendant in the case involving the actual wreck, and he continues to deny the charges. On the ferry to Giglio he explained his desire to return to the island to an Italian journalist: "I have always said that I put my reputation on the line. This is an act due to give dignity to the living and to pay tribute to the dead, to establish the truth and to honor all the Italian commanders."

Schettino's lawyer Domenico Pepe described his return to the island as an act of courage. He said it was an emotional moment for his client and that his going aboard the ship could help ascertain the facts.

Residents on Giglio, however, were not pleased by Schettino's return to the island, and nor were some of the victim's families.

"It makes no sense for Schettino to be here now," Samantha Brizzi, who works at one of the island's real estate agencies, told CBS News. "It's too late, and too late to help with investigations. Where was he when parents were looking for their children and loved ones on that night?"

Another woman, who has lived on Giglio for 60 years, said Schettino should not bear the blame for the disaster alone. "Mistakes happen in life," she said. "Others are responsible as well."

The French mother of one of the victims wrote to the mayor of the island, saying she was angered by Schettino's return.

Locals recalled their shock on the night of the disaster and the captain's decision to abandon the ship before the more than 4,000 passengers and crewmembers had been evacuated -- a move which has seen him dubbed the "Coward Captain" in the Italian press. Residents opened up their homes, provided warm clothes, blankets and food to the stranded passengers. Many said they would be unable to forget that night for the rest of their lives.

They were hugely relieved when salvage workers on the island managed last year to successfully rotate the 114,500-ton ship into an upright position. The unprecedented salvage operation continues, and workers hope to re-float the ship in the next few months and then tow it away from Giglio.

Residents are looking forward to that day, but a decision as to where the ship will be taken for scrapping is still pending.  

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