Costa Concordia shipwreck’s hero and villain lay bare two souls of Italy
Coastguard official’s harangue of ship’s captain strikes a chord with Italians called to order by their technocratic government
John Hooper in Rome guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 18 January 2012
As the 114,500 tonne Costa Concordia loomed out of the night off the coast of Giglio last Friday, two Italian seafarers were unwittingly on their way to becoming nationally – and internationally – notorious for radically different reasons.
After the floating palace of delights hit a rock, the available evidence suggests that its captain, Francesco Schettino, refused to acknowledge the seriousness of what had happened, delayed giving the order to abandon ship and then took to a lifeboat himself, long before the chaotic evacuation was complete. At 1.46am, he was called on his mobile telephone by the local coastguard commander, Gregorio de Falco, who recorded their conversation.
Made available on newspaper websites, the ensuing four minutes, in which De Falco urges, instructs and finally orders his compatriot to do his duty, could scarcely be more emblematic. Writing in Corriere della Sera, the critic Aldo Grasso called the transcript “the document that most exemplifies the two souls of Italy”.
On the one hand, a “captain who flees from his responsibilities as a man and an officer”; on the other, a compatriot “who understands immediately the dimensions of the tragedy and tries to call the coward to [fulfil] his obligations”.
Looked at rationally, the wrecking of the Costa Concordia ought not perhaps to be made to bear the weight of meaning heaped on it. Even if none of those missing are found, the number of dead will be no greater than in an average week on Britain’s roads.
But shipwrecks cannot be assessed rationally. They call to something deep inside us. The shipwreck, wrote Grasso, was “one of the archetypes in all literatures because it illustrates the risks of human existence in the course of the journey through life”.
And at this moment in the life of Italy a shipwreck is almost painfully metaphoric. Like Captain Schettino, the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi delayed taking vital decisions as his country floated progressively closer to a reef marked “eurozone debt crisis”.
For Massimo Gramellini of La Stampa, “The ship lying on its side [is a] symbol of the country adrift.” On the very day the Costa Concordia hit the rocks, the world’s biggest ratings agency, Standard & Poor’s, again downgraded Italy’s creditworthiness, this time to a level below that accorded to Slovakia and Slovenia.
“We had just come out of the tunnel of Bunga Bunga,” noted Caterina Soffici in a blog for the website of the left-leaning Il Fatto Quotidiano. “We were just drawing that little, relieved breath that would enable us to toil again up the hill to international credibility. But [now] … We’ve gone straight into the Titanic nightmare [and] Italy is once again the laughing stock of foreign newspapers.”
Cristiano Gatti, writing in the newspaper of the Berlusconi family, Il Giornale, agreed the world would take delight in an image of “the same old rascally Italians: those unreliable cowards who turn and run in war and flee like rabbits from the ship, even if they are in command”. But, he added, the world should also reflect that, at the other end of the line in that shocking, middle-of-the-night conversation, was “an individual of that same, odd and vilified race … a man and officer able single-handedly to save [his country’s] pride and dignity”.
A mixed sense of relief and admiration for De Falco took shape on the internet, where tens of thousands of Italians turned his peremptory order (“Vada a bordo, cazzo!”, or “Get on board, for fuck’s sake!”) into a trending hashtag. Within hours, T-shirts with the phrase were being offered for sale.
Perhaps the reason why his harangue struck such a chord was that Italians are being called to order by their new government in similarly uncompromising, if politer, terms. The message from Mario Monti and his “technocratic” administration is that Italians can no longer evade their responsibilities by running a vast national overdraft and that the time has come for them all to start paying their taxes. Like De Falco, they are demanding that personal interest be sacrificed for the common good, and so far they have been getting an encouragingly positive response in the form of poll ratings above 60%.
The coastguard commander’s elevation to the status of an idol, if not hero, has nevertheless appalled De Falco himself, and worried others.
Some commentators have observed that the very leaking of the recording is proof of Italians’ enduring indifference to the law. It was part of the evidence against Schettino and should not have been made available for release unless and until he was indicted.
Moreover, as the author and columnist Beppe Severgnini observed, “Millions of [our] compatriots do their duty, often for little money … Perhaps, if the evidence of this seriousness of purpose becomes a source of wonder, [it means] we have forgotten that.”
Visible proof of the courage, dedication and even heroism of Italians has been projected by television into the homes of the nation, and the world, every day since the disaster. It can be seen in the images of fire brigade and Carabinieri divers risking their lives to search a vessel that could shift at any moment, trapping them inside.
It can be seen in the footage of the doctor and the helicopter winchman who were lowered on to the Costa Concordia, leaning at an angle of 80°, on Sunday to treat and then rescue the last passenger found alive.
Many Italians do their best to live up to the examples of men such as Columbus and Garibaldi. Roberto Bosio, an off-duty captain travelling on the liner, stayed behind to man the bridge after it was abandoned. Two other Italian officers remained aboard until the end to try to bring order to the chaos of the evacuation. And among the names on the list of the missing is that of Giuseppe Girolamo, the long-haired drummer in the on-board band, Dee Dee Smith. Witnesses said he had a place in one of the lifeboats, but gave it up to a child.
• This article was amended on 19 January 2012. The original said that Italy is once again the laughing stocking of foreign newspapers. This has been corrected.