The dangerous manoeuvre that caused the Costa Concordia cruise ship to crash into rocks off the shore of the Italian island of Giglio last month was likely the result of a rivalry between its captain and that of another ship to see who could get closest to the island when sounding the customary salute that vessels give when passing shore.
Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino, had sent an email just weeks before the Jan. 13 disaster to another captain who had managed to sound his ship's horn from closer than the eight kilometres considered safe.
In that email, Schettino vowed to pull the same stunt and do it better, according to Italian investigative journalist Carlo Bonini, one of several people interviewed in a special report on the wreck of the Concordia that will air Friday night on The Fifth Estate.
"So, I think it was … this sort of a challenge among captains, a sort of a secret challenge among captains," Bonini told the Fifth Estate's Bob McKeown.
Bonini learned of the captain's boast while investigating the events that led up to the running aground of the Concordia, which resulted in the deaths of at least 17 of the 4,200 crew and passengers on board (another 16 people are still missing and presumed dead).
The Fifth Estate report features interviews and exclusive videos from some of those passengers, taken as they scrambled to get off the capsizing Concordia, as well as interviews with marine experts and key figures involved in the rescue operation.
In the report, Bonini describes how it may have been Schettino's challenge to the other captain that led him to, without the knowledge of the ship's passengers, change the Concordia's course to pass about 800 metres from shore even though it was supposed to be heading farther out to sea.
"No one among his officers dared to say, 'This is not safe'," Bonini told the Fifth Estate.
Island's deputy mayor leads rescue
Schettino could have still salvaged the situation had he slowed down and turned the vessel parallel to the coast, said Capt. John Konrad, an experienced master mariner who reconstructed the Concordia's course for the Fifth Estate.
But Schettino was distracted — witnesses say he was on the bridge of the ship with a young woman he had been dining with earlier, along with his fellow officers, and he was talking on the phone. That may have been what caused him to lose track of how close the ship was to the rocks and keep going full speed ahead, causing the stern to smash into an outcrop of rocks less than a ship's length off shore (the Concordia is 290 metres long).
The initial confusion and then, more than an hour after the crash, the chaos that ensued when the captain finally made the announcement to abandon ship is vividly described in the Fifth Estate report by those who lived through it, including ship doctor Gianluca Marino-Cosentino, who like the rest of the Concordia's crew and passengers, was kept in the dark about what had really happened to the ship.
"I never seen before Titanic, but we live the Titanic situation," Marino-Cosentino told the Fifth Estate. "Because I saw the ship go on left, on right. Everything goes. People fall down, people cut, people destroyed, people dead."
Giglio's deputy mayor, Mario Pellegrino, also witnessed the mayhem firsthand. He boarded the first lifeboat that arrived on his island as it headed back to the Concordia to pick up more passengers. When he arrived at the cruise ship, he found plenty of panicked passengers scrambling for lifeboats but no senior officers, so he, one junior officer and the ship's stewards, waiters and other staff led the evacuation.
"In all the panic that ensued, no one asked about the captain," Pellegrino told the Fifth Estate. "It was only when we got off the ship that the question was raised: where was he?"
According to the timeline Bonini has assembled based on interviews with witnesses, Schettino and three first officers left the cruise ship in a lifeboat shortly after the "abandon ship" order was given.
The Fifth Estate report "The Wreck of the Costa Concordia" airs Friday at 9 p.m./9:30 p.m. NT on CBC-TV.