Disgraced Italian captain returns to board wrecked cruise ship

Captain Francesco Schettino (centre) arrives at the Giglio harbour Feb 27, 2014. Italian captain Francesco Schettino on Thursday returned on board his stricken Costa Concordia cruise ship, more than two years after leaving it in a hurry as it sa
Captain Francesco Schettino (centre) arrives at the Giglio harbour Feb 27, 2014. Italian captain Francesco Schettino on Thursday returned on board his stricken Costa Concordia cruise ship, more than two years after leaving it in a hurry as it sank in a tragedy that claimed 32 lives. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy (AFP) - Italian captain Francesco Schettino on Thursday returned on board his stricken Costa Concordia cruise ship, more than two years after leaving it in a hurry as it sank in a tragedy that claimed 32 lives.

Wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses, the disgraced captain fought off a media scrum as he arrived in the tiny port on Giglio Island, donned a life jacket and got on a boat that took him out to the vessel.

Schettino's visit was part of a court-ordered inspection in the ongoing trial against him for multiple counts of manslaughter and abandoning ship before all the passengers had been evacuated.

"They want to show that I am weak, just like two years ago. It's not true! I want to show I'm a gentleman, not a coward," Schettino, who was dubbed "Captain Coward" by the tabloids, was quoted by Italian media as saying.

Schettino claims he fell onto a lifeboat as the ship keeled over on the night of the disaster on January 13, 2012 and then stayed on dry land because he wanted to coordinate the nighttime evacuation from there.

In a recorded phone call from that dramatic night, a senior coast guard official was heard shouting at Schettino: "Get back on board, for fuck's sake!" With 4,229 people from 70 countries on board, the giant luxury liner crashed into rocks just off Giglio as it attempted a risky "salute" manoeuvre.

It capsized near the coast but has since been righted in the biggest-ever salvage operation of its kind and is due to be towed away for scrapping in June.

Schettino returned to the island on Tuesday for the first time since that night and had been hiding from the media glare in a white-painted house on a cobbled side street near the port in a picturesque fishing community that numbers only a few hundred people.

Islanders reacted with mixed emotions to his presence, with some saying they felt sympathy for someone they consider a "scapegoat" for wider blame and others saying he and the ship should get off the island.

Mr Sergio Ortelli, the mayor of Giglio, said there was "indifference" to Schettino's visit and more concern about when the luxury liner would be taken away.

"What marked this island more was when he got off that boat on the night of the accident,"Mr Ortelli said.

"When the spotlights are turned on, the pain of this event returns. The relatives of the victims and the people of Giglio need an explanation of what happened."

But the mayor added: "More than his two-day presence, we are interested in the two-year salvage of the ship, which we hope will finish as soon as possible."

"This island wants to return to normality, to tourism" - a major earner in the summer months, he said.

Thursday's technical inspection will focus on a lift where several of the victims died and an emergency diesel generator which the defence says malfunctioned on the night of the disaster on January 13, 2012.

The court granted special dispensation for Schettino to attend after a request by his lawyers but specified he was there "as a defendant, not a consultant" and was only allowed to follow the proceedings.

Schettino's lawyer Domenico Pepe told AFP earlier: "Schettino is confronting the whole world on his own." The lawyer, who was accompanying Schettino on the island, said the captain's former employer and ship owner Costa Crociere, the biggest cruise operator in Europe, had focussed the blame on him.

"It is very, very difficult because Schettino does not have the economic resources of Costa," he said.

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