The Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia's captain suggests he has been unfairly blamed for both the shipwreck that killed 32 people and for appearing to abandon ship prematurely, CBC's the fifth estate reports in an exclusive documentary airing Friday.

In an interview, Capt. Francesco Schettino describes to the fifth estate's Bob McKeown how he believes that the ship wasn't on the course he had ordered and how he believes a helmsman's brief error contributed to the problem. As well, Schettino says that evidence from the ship's recovered "black box" appears to support his contention.

"It's not a crime, it's an accident," he says. "And there is a difference between crime and accident. In this case, it's being treated like a crime, and I don't understand why."

Schettino had ordered a sail-past "salute" to the island of Giglio on the evening of Jan. 13, travelling parallel to the shore at a distance of about half a nautical mile.

When he arrived on the bridge to command the salute, however, he said the ship wasn't on the course he had ordered. As he took control and turned the ship, he saw foam and realized he was in shallow water. The Costa Concordia had in fact been heading at full speed toward rocks.

As the black box indicates, Schettino says, he ordered a turn to port, to the left, but it appears the opposite happened. Shortly after, the aft section of the ship struck rocks in the shallow water, and a 35-metre gash was torn in the hull below the water.

 

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Watch the fifth estate documentary, Costa Concordia: The Captain's Tale Friday. It airs on CBC-TV at 9 p.m. (9:30 in Newfoundland and Labrador).

Schettino told the fifth estate that he delayed ordering the passengers to abandon ship because he didn't want to create panic. He says that there was also the expectation that they would be safer closer to shore where they could be rescued.

"The moment that you do that, you do that only when you are sure that it's more dangerous to keep them on board," he says.

With the ship still in motion toward deeper water, it would have been dangerous to man the lifeboats, the captain says.

"It's only one passenger that starts to give the example to jump overboard, and you can provoke a kind of hysteria. Mass hysteria. And that would have been the worst thing to happen."

Removal of passengers

In the end, the Costa Concordia, now without power, drifted into shallower water against rocks near Giglio and began to tilt severely to the right.

The salvage of the ship continues, as do numerous lawsuits against the owners. Charges of negligent manslaughter against Schettino are pending, as a judge in Italy decides whether to proceed.

Schettino was accused after the wreck of trying to abandon ship before the passengers were off. However, he says that while he was co-ordinating the evacuation of the ship, he accidentally slid off the side of the listing ship and onto a lifeboat.

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The half-sunk cruise ship Costa Concordia remains where it ran aground on Jan 13, 2012. (CBC)

When the famous conversation with Italian Coast Guard commander Gregorio de Falco took place, in which the captain is upbraided and ordered back on to the ship, Schettino says the passengers on the submerged side of the ship were already off. The problem was to get to those on the high side, on the left.

Where Schettino and his crewmembers were, they were at risk of being crushed by the still-listing ship, he said.

"We had no other option, because we were on the starboard side, the sinking side of the ship," he tells McKeown. "We were forced to go: otherwise we would have died."

To be sure, suspicions about Schettino's actions that night remain, and the fifth estate talked with survivors such as Laurence and Andrea Davis, who live in Calgary.

To swim or not?

"I saw too many bad things happen to panicking people," Laurence Davis says. "They were getting hurt, injured, people falling between lifeboats."

With lifeboats either full or gone, the Davises were faced with the decision whether or not to jump into the cold water.

"During all these emotions, I never did think we were going to die until I was standing on that deck and the water started coming over my feet," Davis says.

"That was the first time I said to myself, this is the end. And this is why I looked at Andrea and said, well, sink or swim."

Eventually — they don't remember how long it took — they reached the rocks and safety.

As for Schettino being blamed in Italy and elsewhere, the captain seems at a loss to respond.

"I cannot feel responsible," he says." Of course I feel sad for that, but it's something that I can deal with, because I know that it's not the truth. And I know that one day, the people — that this is the beginning of this. We will start to make clear on the dynamic, all the circumstances that led to happening to this accident."

Watch the fifth estate documentary, Costa Concordia: The Captain's Tale Friday. It airs on CBC-TV at 9 p.m. (9:30 in Newfoundland and Labrador).