Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

Remembering Costa Concordia’s Victims

On January 13 2013, hundreds of passengers who were on the Costa Concordia plan to make a pilgrimage back to the island of Giglio to mark the one year anniversary of the accident.

But they are only a small percentage of the 4,220 total survivors of the Costa Concordia, the giant cruise ship that ran aground and sank off the coast of Tuscany on 13 January 2012, leaving 32 dead and the ship’s captain under arrest, besieged by rumours that he had a young mistress on board and that he had endangered passengers’ lives by sailing too close to land for a lark.

The survivors are scattered across the world, all with a common painful experience, but each carrying their own unique post-traumatic burdens and pursuing different paths to justice.

Some have taken the E11,000 payout in exchange for promising not to sue. Some have joined expensive class-action lawsuits in the US in exchange for a hefty cut of winnings promised by the American attorneys representing them. In France, many have joined forces to bargain collectively.

The Italian criminal inquest into the Costa Concordia shipwreck finally opens in Grosseto – the closest town to the scene of the accident – on Monday 15 October.

The Grosseto judges will hear evidence from a dry but damning 270-page technical report compiled by two Navy admirals and two engineers. It details the maddening series of errors by crew, captain and the cruise company Costa Crociere that doomed the mega cruise ship.

Among the nine people facing charges ranging from manslaughter to abandoning ship is the captain, Francesco Schettino. But while all eyes are on Italy, a parallel investigation ordered by France’s justice ministry could end up in a French courtroom within months.

France is one of the few countries to open its own formal probe immediately after the accident, and that investigation has marched efficiently forward in the nine months that have passed. On Coast Guard orders, the 456 survivors were interviewed by the French Gendarmerie, who asked them all the same questions, amassing a formidable database of independent depositions detailing their experiences and the post-traumatic stress many suffered.

Half of them formed a victims’ association to bargain collectively. Each passenger has a file, where medical reports, psychologists assessments and other documentation is scanned by Paris lawyers and then added into the electronic dossier, getting heftier by the day.

“We want this to be resolved by the first anniversary, or we will be going to court in France,” the victims’ association lawyer Bertrand Courtois told The Week. “We want to get to the truth.”

The group met in recent weeks to discuss progress in the case and seek comfort in their shared suffering. To measure the psychological impact, a study was commissioned by a psychologist from the University of Haute Alsace. It revealed trauma typical of survival scenarios: nightmares, anxiety, depression, anger, a sense of abandonment and a loss of faith in the fairness of fellow humans (especially among the mothers with children).

Numerous passengers reported that when the ship first hit the rocks they were advised there was a momentary electrical blackout and told to go back to their cabins. Their statements also reveal a critical language barrier between a largely immigrant crew and the ship’s Italian officers, at times seemingly unable to communicate in a common language.

The massive body of evidence assembled in France has not gone unnoticed in Italy, where it will likely be submitted as evidence. “The Italian magistrates are very interested – we have 456 different people responding to the same questions,” Bertrand Courtois told The Week.

French lawyers’ strong-arm tactics began last spring, when they threatened to have a Costa Crociere ship that was docked in the port of Marseilles arrested in order to force the company to the bargaining table. Within weeks, Costa Crociere had agreed to hand over an advance payment of E9,000 euros for each of the 235 members of the victims’ association, without waving any right to seek future compensation.

The Costa Concordia was carrying passengers from all over the world when it sank but the highest percentage were Italians (989), Germans (569) and French (462), and these same countries had the highest numbers of victims. The 32 who lost their lives included 12 Germans, seven Italians and six French. ·

*Portions of the above story was first published Friday, Oct. 12 in The Week.  The story below was published here in March, while recovery of the bodies of the victims was still ongoing.

GIGLIO, ITALY –  While a number of important steps are being taken to preserve Giglio’s environment in the wake of the Costa Concordia disaster, much could still be done to continue advocacy for the victims and their families.

While I was reporting on the tiny Tuscan island last week, several victims’ relatives were notified that the forensic police (polizia scientifica) had halted DNA testing on bodies being recovered from the shipwreck.  Fortunately, legal obstacles have since been removed and autopsies and DNA testing has resumed. Most of the 4,200 passengers on the stricken Costa Concordia made it to shore by swimming, or with the help of lifeboats, crew, divers and valiant island residents. But 25 died and seven are still missing and presumed dead. Eight bodies were recently recovered and are in the process of being identified.

The halting of DNA identification last week was a devastating setback for the families, whose loved ones could either be still inside the ship or already on the mainland inside the small Grosseto morgue, reportedly overwhelmed by the situation.

“Why has the Italian state blocked DNA testing on the bodies?” asked one father of a missing French citizen. “We still don’t know if our loved ones have been brought out or not.”

The decision to stop doing autopsies and DNA testing came at the request of one of the defense lawyers who filed a motion requesting that such forensic tests be done in the presence of consultants because it should be considered “unrepeatable.”   But several days later, the lawyer for the Costa crew member did an about face and recalled the motion, allowing the key forensic work to resume.

Forty days after the shipwreck,  expert divers continue to brave cloudy, contaminated waters inside the half-sunken ship’s carcass. Divers say the situation underwater is now extremely toxic, especially due to soap, chemicals and the rotting meat and foodstuffs (its stores were full as it had just left port for a week-long cruise).  Some of the remaining missing are believed to be trapped on Deck 3. The Dutch company removing most of the heavy, black ship oil is expected to finish its task by mid-March, when bids are expected to be reviewed for the larger salvage operation of removing the ship. For now, authorities feel the risk of a huge disaster has been lessened.

“We are still crossing our fingers, but we now believe there is much less risk of any ecological damage,”  said Italian Navy  Admiral Ilarione Dell’Anna.

On the legal side, it will likely be next year before a formal criminal trial goes forward. Prosecutors set a July hearing date for reviewing the black box data, specifically recordings and information from three computers. Prosecutors are still investigating if the investigation should be widened beyond the nine individuals who are currently within the probe, including some Costa Cruise management and officers aboard the ship, and of course its captain, Francesco Schettino, who faces charges  of manslaughter, shipwreck, abandoning ship, and destroying protected habitat. Though most of the blame has been heaped squarely on Schettino, his lawyers say he saved many lives by maneuvering the damaged boat so close to shore and maintain the full story of the accident is more complex.  Questions are also being asked about whether or not the Italian Coast Guard, tasked with monitoring ship traffic by radar, warned the ship that it was dangerously off course.  It seemed a number of officials turned a blind eye to the risky “ship salutes” that brought the huge vessels close to shore.

On August 13, the Costa Concordia did a similar salute,  coming toward the shore at 17 knots, then slowing to 12 before coming to within 150 meters of the shore, according to satellite data deposited Saturday by one of the lawyers representing several survivors.

Italy’s Minister for the Environment last week announced a ban on ship “salutes” in all environmentally sensitive waters – including the Venice lagoons and some of the most beautiful islands of the Mediterranean.

“The environment is Italy’s most important resource,” Minister for the Environment Corrado Clini told me in an interview. “And we hope this will help avoid any future catastrophes.”


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