Grosseto, December 17 - Captain Francesco Shettino was "distracted" by a telephone call and a woman in the moments leading up to the cruise-ship crash that killed 32 people off the coast of Tuscany early last year, the first officer aboard the Costa Concordia told a court Tuesday.
"The captain was distracted. He was on the telephone with (retired Costa captain Mario) Palombo. Even though I had finished my shift, I felt I had to retake command in order to give orders to the helmsman to start our approach to Giglio Island, which was getting closer," said Ciro Ambrosio, who has plea-bargained a sentence of one year and 11 months for multiple manslaughter. In testimony this October, Palombo said he was telling Schettino in that phone call there was no reason to sail so close to Giglio, and advised him to distance the ship from the shore. The first officer said Schettino then "arrived in the command center accompanied by a woman, then gave an order to switch to manual control of the helm". The woman has been identified as Domnica Cemortan, a Moldovan dancer who said she was having an affair with Schettino. "But he did not immediately speak the phrase 'I'm taking control', which signals a change in command," continued Ambrosio, who added that Schettino was communicating only with hand gestures as he spoke on the phone. "However, given the way he positioned himself, I assumed he had taken command and I thought I was no longer in charge. "Then, since the captain was distracted, and we were getting closer to Giglio, I gave orders to the helmsman.
"Only afterward did the captain finally say the words 'I'm taking control', at the time of 21:39:17". The crash took place shortly later at 21:45 local time, January 13, 2012. Ambrosio then added that Schettino ordered to "turn 290 degrees when we were 1.6 miles from the island and increase speed".
Recordings from the night of the disaster were also played in the courtroom from the ship's black box. Comments revealed that crewmembers feared running aground before impact in what became Italy's worst maritime catastrophe since World War II. "It's too close, this is crazy!" said an anonymous voice from the ship's command center before it slammed into rocks and partially capsized. Sarcastic laughter was then heard in the background. Captain Schettino is believed to have been eating dinner at the time of the comments, when First Officer Ambrosio was on duty following a new route around Giglio Island mandated by Schettino. The captain is on trial for multiple manslaughter and dereliction of duty, and could face up to 20 years in prison if he is found guilty.