Francesco Schettino paints scene of chaos on the bridge at the time of the wreck
Schettino: "This is the only chance I have to tell my version of events"
Ship's captain, on the stand for the first time, denies charges of multiple manslaughter
Thirty-two people died after the Costa Concordia hit rocks and capsized off Italy's coast
Francesco Schettino, captain of the wrecked Costa Concordia cruise ship, took the stand for the first time Tuesday, combative and contradicting the testimony of not just his first captain but also what he has said in the past about the deadly shipwreck.
Schettino – who is charged with manslaughter, causing a maritime disaster and abandoning ship with passengers still on board – denies wrongdoing. He faces up to 23 years in prison if convicted.
He remained defiant even while painting a picture of confusion on board the ship as the disaster unfolded, pointing the finger at others for the chaotic evacuation of the ship’s passengers.
Five of the captain’s co-workers have already entered guilty pleas in the case, including officers who were on the ship.
These pleas may work against Schettino as he answers questions with regard to the co-workers’ testimony before the court in Grosseto.
When shown the deposition given by his first captain, Ciro Ambrosio, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a lighter sentence, Schettino was argumentative and gesticulated wildly.
What Ambrosio told the court in his testimony is similar to the version of events Schettino has given in past TV interviews, but the captain contradicted that version in his testimony Tuesday.
Schettino’s attorneys argued that what the captain has previously said on Italian TV cannot be used as evidence in court. The disputed testimony deals with such details as radar readings, who was on the bridge at the time of the accident and where those people were positioned.
Speaking to CNN during a court break, Schettino said he was confident about how his trial was progressing.
“It is exhausting, but I think it is going well,” Schettino said of Tuesday’s hearing. “It is important because this is the only chance I have to tell my version of events.”
Asked if he thought the court was sympathetic to him, he said, “This is the first time I have had a chance to officially address the court personally so this should be the first time they should be judging me. I am confident.”
His testimony is expected to continue Wednesday and probably one day next week.
The cruise liner capsized after it struck rocks off Italy’s Giglio Island in the Tyrrhenian Sea on January 12, 2012. No one died on impact, but 32 lives were lost during the subsequent chaotic evacuation of some 4,200 people on board the ship.
Chaos on the bridge
Schettino was sworn in under a giant sign reading, “The law is equal for everyone,” in a makeshift courtroom in Grosetto’s red velvet Teatro Moderno.
As assistant prosecutor Alessandro Leopizzi questioned Schettino, the captain described a scene of utter chaos on the bridge both before and after the accident.
At one point he explained how it was common to invite passengers and guests on the bridge, and said they often tipped him. “I said there couldn’t be more than 12 people at a time,” he said. “And they would bring 20, 30, 70 euro a tour.”
He acknowledged frequently conducting flyby activities – deviating from the planned route to go closer to certain places – with his cruise ship. “It was favorable from a commercial aspect,” he said.
When the prosecutor asked if he had ever done a flyby past Giglio before, he said he couldn’t remember but might have passed close by.
’Not trying to blame anyone’
Schettino also explained why he chose Giglio on this occasion, telling the court that he thought retired Costa Capt. Mario Palombo was on the island.
When the prosecutor asked Schettino why he called Palombo and then why he asked Palombo how deep the coastal waters were, he said he was just making conversation.
Schettino recounted how he gave the orders to the helmsman, Jacob Rusli Bin of Indonesia, to go off course after using his binoculars to look ahead.
When asked if his helmsman caused the accident, he said: “I’m not trying to blame anyone. I’m just trying to explain the circumstances.”
The captain has suggested Rusli Bin did not speak English or Italian well enough to understand his orders – although audiotape played in court Tuesday appeared to contradict that.
Pushed as to why he used his binoculars instead of relying on the radar, Schettino said, “It was my habit to take my binoculars and look first. Not that I didn’t trust the radar, but it was how I did it.”
He was confident that the ship had enough room for the maneuver, he said.
In an audiotape played over the radar from the bridge extracted from the ship’s data recorder, Schettino told his helmsman to turn, “otherwise we go on the rocks.”
Asked why he made that comment, he said he was being ironic. “A few minutes later, I was told the danger we were in.”
Schettino appeared visibly shaken, putting his head in his hands, shortly after radar and audio recordings of the moment of impact were played in court.
Bells and alarms rang, and then the recording went offline.
The prosecutor asked Schettino about his last words captured on tape. “But where did we touch?” the captain asked, to which someone said, “Oh my dear God.”
Schettino also will be cross-examined by a number of civil parties at the court.
They include the attorney for a Moldovan dancer who dined with the captain and was with him on the command bridge at the time of the shipwreck.
’Ready to defend his honor’
Before the hearing began, Schettino’s attorney, Domenico Pepe, told CNN his client was ready to tell the truth.
“We have waited a long time to set the record straight,” he said. “He is ready to defend his honor.”
Schettino has repeatedly presented a defiant face over the shipwreck.
He has pointed the finger at the Costa cruise company for not providing maps with the rocks he hit appropriately marked.
Schettino has also blamed the ship, saying generators did not work so the elevators did not function, which hindered some people’s escape.
Journalist Barbie Latza Nadeau reported from Grosseto, and CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London.