It was the evening of January 13, 2012. The Costa Concordia had set sail a few hours earlier from Civitavecchia on its final leg of the «Scent of Citrus Fruit» cruise to Savona.

The 3,216 passengers are enjoying the last hours of their summer vacation, savoring the final supper on board, preparing their luggage, and bidding farewell to their fellow passengers as they exchange phone numbers with a promise, which is never fulfilled, to talk to each other again soon. At 9.45 p.m. there was a dull noise, all the lights went out, a panic: the 114.147 tons of gross weight of the ship, which was one of the most imposing of the Italian Merchant Navy, struck one of the smallest rocks of the Scole, near the island of Giglio. From that point on, everything changed instantly. Not only because of that tragedy in which 32 people died, but also because of events that became part of the public image, such as the abandonment of the ship by Captain Francesco Schettino, who has become a symbol of cowardice, or the famous «get the hell back on board» uttered by Captain Gregorio De Falco in a last desperate attempt to bring the person responsible for supervising the rescue operations back to the Costa Concordia. Corriere del Ticino talked to De Falco, who has since been appointed Senator of the Italian Republic, a decade after that tragic night.

«I remember as if it were yesterday, with that call to my home to notify me that there was a ship in trouble, which, nevertheless, would have never caused me to imagine an occurrence of this magnitude.

But my most vivid memory, one that made me realize we were facing a disaster, was the call from a patrol boat, alerting me that a body had been found and that the ship was leaning heavily, with several people falling into the water. And we should make every possible effort to avoid a massacre».

But the conditions, on a winter’s night with over 4,200 passengers and crew to be rescued, were complicated from the start. «Regrettably, we found ourselves faced with a chaotic abandonment of the ship, with passengers in panic and the crew totally unprepared and unprofessional - explained the then head of the operations room of the Livorno harbor master’s office - We promptly deployed helicopters with night vision to see the heat of the bodies and to rescue the most urgent cases, such as a girl with an exposed bone fracture who, had she fallen into the water, she would have had no chance of survival». The extensive rescue operation put in place by De Falco, involving the Coast Guard, the Fire Brigade, the Air Force, the Carabinieri, the Guardia di Finanza and the Police, in addition to all the merchant ships present in the area, saved 4,197 lives. But 32 didn’t make it. «And every death is one death too many. The biggest regret is that we were alerted with an unacceptable delay. It is difficult to live with this reality, but I am also aware that I truly did everything in my power and that these victims did not die because it was impossible to save them, but rather because the rescue on board did not work at all. The U.S. Senate has also analyzed the Costa Concordia shipwreck, with experts confirming that the Coast Guard’s actions were impeccable. While the investigations of the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Grosseto are quite explicative of the responsibilities of the deck personnel on board that night».

The most notorious, almost comparable to the «villain» of a film, is without a doubt Commander Schettino. «The other officers, beginning with first officer Ambrosio and third officer Coronica, who failed to alter that insane course towards the rocks, and the technical staff of Costa Crociere itself, in whose management of the emergency and coordination with the authorities was flawed, to say the least, also bear important blame. In this regard, I was very sad to discover that a former commander of the Costa Concordia, a person who knew the ship inside out, was heading for our operations room in Livorno but failed to give us basic information for rescue operations. But it’ s obvious that the figure of Schettino, who, as Commander, decided, among all the initiatives that he could implement, to abandon the ship, is surely the one that causes the most uproar. It was an attitude that prevented many people from being saved».

«So many times - continues De Falco - I was asked what I would like to say to him by looking into his eyes today. But the truth is that I have nothing to say to Francesco Schettino as a person, I am not the one who has to judge his moral stature. Whereas I have spoken to the captain Francesco Schettino as rescue coordinator and you know very well exactly what happened.

I would have wanted my most important communication to have been the first one with the Concordia’s on-board command, asking them if they were in an emergency. They not only hesitated, but waited another 20 minutes to declare the abandonment of the ship, which needed to be done immediately. Each time I had to prompt them to take a step forward, a somewhat surreal situation that resulted in a lot of precious time being wasted. I was trying to have an onboard interlocutor who would enable me to implement those small initiatives, like increasing the number of people in the lifeboats, which would have significantly facilitated the rescue operations and which were impossible to do from land.

A disaster that has represented a heavy stain on Italian shipping, as De Falco explains: «Until 2012, the most famous shipwreck of an Italian liner was that of the Andrea Doria in 1956, with Captain Calamai clinging to the railings and urging his officers to leave and to coordinate the operations that saved 1,240 people, with the sole victim being a little girl who died because of her father who crazily threw her into a lifeboat. We went from this act of poignant and dignified heroism to the silences, the lack of cooperation, and the fleeing seen that day in January near Giglio. An absolute disgrace.»

While it’ true that every incident is required to make strides in safety, then what has the Concordia tragedy taught 10 years later? «That at whatever level of responsibility each of us is called upon, everyone must be very clear about their duties and obligations. Because faltering and failing in our duties can cause severe damage to ourselves and others. The consequences of our choices on society, we should never forget. Particularly in this historical period, where we have to face a global threat together and where no one can afford to «abandon ship» out of mere selfishness».

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