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The Concordia disaster, remembered

Last updated on: February 28, 2012 19:22 IST

The Concordia disaster, remembered

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A Ganesh Nadar in Mumbai

A year ago, January 13, 2012, the cruise liner Costa Concordia sank off the Italian coast.

To mark that sad occasion, we repost a feature from our archives where Indian crew members aboard the ship defended its captain who was blamed for what occurred that horrific night.

Many are yet to overcome the tragedy that struck the Costa Concordia, a gigantic Italian cruise ship.

On January 13, 2012, the Costa Concordia struck a rock in the Tyrrhenian Sea, near the western coast of Italy.

This tore a 160-foot-long gash in the ship's belly. With water flooding in, the Costa Concordia drifted to Giglio Island, where she ran aground, lying on her side in shallow waters.

Of its 3,229 passengers and 1,023 crew members, 32 people could not be saved.

The accident occurred when Francesco Schettino, the ship's captain, allegedly deviated from its route and the cruise liner hit a rock.

Even though Schettino showed presence of mind, turned the ship 180 degrees, and let it rest on the very rock that it hit, he was tried in numerous cases, including manslaughter.

Francesco Schettino was then what one British tabloid called him, 'the most hated man in Italy.'

But Indian crew members of the Costa Concordia defended the captain when they spoke to Rediff.com's A Ganesh Nadar in Mumbai.

Soon after the mishap occurred, they added, Indian embassy officials in Italy inquired if there were any Indian passengers on board the ill-fated vessel.

When told there weren't any, the Indian embassy staff left the site, unaware that 202 Indian crew members were on board the Costa Concordia.

Three days later, when some crew members called the Indian embassy, they were told it was a Sunday. Embassy staff turned up to help only the next day!

One Indian crew member remains missing; his body has not yet been found.

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Image: The cruise liner Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the west coast of Italy on January 13, 2012
Photographs: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

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'So many people survived because of the captain'

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Mayur Kadam, the Costa Concordia's photographer, worked on the ship for eight months. This is what he saw that night:

"I studied photography for two years. Then I started working with a car magazine. After that I freelanced for about two years. It was then that I got the opportunity to work on a ship.

We have seven day cruises, so we went for many in those eight months. This particular cruise was in the Mediterranean. We started from Italy and were to come back after seven days. We went to Spain, France among other places.

The mishap occurred on the last day, when we were returning to our port of origin.

It was around quarter to ten at night. I was talking to some passengers when the ship started leaning to one side. There was a big bang, really loud. I was shocked and wondering what was going on. Everyone around was panicking. Five minutes later, the lights started fluctuating.

The captain announced 'India Tango' which is a codeword for injured people. We knew that people had been injured. Soon the noises resumed on the port side as the ship started leaning faster.

Then we heard the emergency sirens. We collected our life jackets and rushed to our muster station. There were two muster stations for passengers: Station A and B. For us, it was another meeting point, the crew beach.

On the way we saw passengers in panic. We tried to calm them down. As the ship had tilted to one side it took us an hour to reach our muster station. Normally it takes two minutes. We saw that the ship was near a mountain. We saw that the port was around two miles away. We thought we were set to sink, as the tilt was too much.

Then we heard another announcement, 'Abandon ship!' We moved to the spot where the life rafts and lifeboats were kept. We let the passengers go first as they were extremely scared. Lifeboats are for the passengers and life rafts for the crew. It took us another hour to reach this place.

After the passengers left, there were no lifeboats or life rafts left for us. So we moved to another place. I told the rest of the crew to wait and went looking for help.

After walking some 70 metres I saw a way out. I climbed to the roof on pipes. I reached the top and was walking on the ship now.

I was waiting for a lifeboat when I heard a noise from below. There were two passengers. I told them to come up. We got some rope, but it was too short. They could not climb up the pipes. The other crew looked for a longer rope.

I went down. The bewildered passengers three decks down were freezing in the water that had filled those decks.

A girl among them was crying. By that time, the crew found a hose pipe and threw it down. I gave it to the girl and told her to hold on tight. The crew pulled her up to the top, but alas, she slipped, and broke her leg.

I told her to tie the hose round her waist and we pulled her up again. Thankfully by that time, a lifeboat came back to our help which took us to the nearest shore. Everybody was relieved. We spent the night in a church. In the morning we were taken to a resort.

There we waited for three days. The other (countries) embassy guys were there, but not ours. We called them up, and got a reply, 'Today is Sunday, you call us tomorrow', and to bring along a passport-size photograph. We were terribly upset.

I called up a friend who called up Mumbai legislator Vinod Tawde, who in turn got in touch with (senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders) L K Advani and Sushma Swaraj. They did something and the embassy guy called us back immediately. He said he would come in two hours. They then shifted us to the Indian embassy in Rome.

There were 600 people at the embassy. We were in Rome for three days. Our company and the embassy sorted out other formalities. We got emergency documents and came back on January 20. The company has also compensated us.

The captain was having dinner with a girl when the mishap happened. Some people on board the ship wanted to see an island nearby. On their request, the captain called Costa, the company operating the cruise, and got permission. He took the ship too close to the island, and banged into a rock.

A 45-metre hole was created by that rock. The captain then tried to steer the ship to the nearest dock, but that was impossible.

So he took it back and parked it on the same rock. Because of that all these people survived. Otherwise many would have died as the ship would have sunk completely."

All inset pictures by A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com

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Image: Rescue workers on the capsized Costa Concordia. Inset: Mayur Kadam
Photographs: Max Rossi/Reuters

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'The passengers were in total panic'

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Bartender Vinit Bhan Singh worked on the ship for seven months.

"Bartending on the Costa Concordia was my first job aboard a ship. I was supposed to come home on February 11, and this happened on January 13.

I was working when there was a huge thud and the ship tilted to the left. Initially, we did not know how serious it was. They announced that it was a technical problem and things would come back to normal soon. Next we realised that the ship was sitting on its side.

I went back to my room and got my sweater and life jacket. I came back to the bar and found the passengers in total panic. We tried to calm them down, but to no avail.

Later the captain announced 'Abandon ship'. I went looking for my friends, but could not find them.

I found two women trying to put a disabled girl on a wheelchair. I helped them. The ship was tilting, so we could not put her in the wheelchair. So I carried the girl to her muster station.

"Then I went to my muster station. I was lucky to have been rescued in the beginning. The rest took a long time.

After hitting the rock, the ship was turned 180 degrees and rested on the same rock. This saved everyone's life.

I will go back. The pay is much higher than a shore job and I am not scared."

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Image: The capsized Costa Concordia cruise ship. Inset: Vinit Bhan Singh
Photographs: Tony Gentile/Reuters

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'The captain should have been the last to abandon ship'

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Mubin Sheikh, part of the housekeeping staff on the Costa Concordia, worked on the ship for five-and-a-half months.

"I was sleeping when the mishap happened. As the ship had tilted, I thought we were in rough seas. The door of my cabin was rattling violently.

When I tried to stop it, my finger got crushed. Then I heard the emergency alarm. I put on my life jacket and went out of my cabin.

I was feeling dizzy by then. I was holding on to the railings and going upwards. A colleague helped me walk and made me sit down. It was freezing cold outside. People started moving to the lifeboats and life rafts.

We were waiting for the passengers to go first. An officer told us to leave. The ship continued to tilt. We had to catch the railings and walk; otherwise it was not possible to walk. We were among the last to be rescued.

The captain should have been the last to abandon the ship. I don't know what he was doing on the island before me.

Three days later we were in Mumbai. My family doesn't want me to go back, but I will."

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Image: Divers look for survivors near the Costa Concordia. Inset: Mubin Sheikh
Photographs: Tony Gentile/Reuters

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'Half the lifeboats were lost'

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Ethor D'Souza, was the ship's chief accountant, and has worked on ocean liners for 11 years.

"It was 9.30 pm. I finished my work and went to my cabin. I was lying down when I heard a big bang. The TV in my room fell on the floor.

I left the cabin to see what had happened. I saw everyone running around. Security staff told me to go to the muster station.

I heard the captain saying everything was under control. I was going back to my cabin when the security staff sent me back to the station.

I collected a life jacket from my office and went ahead. There were more than 3,000 passengers and over 1,000 crew members. There were enough lifeboats and rafts available.

But half the lifeboats were lost as they were under the ship when it tilted.

There was a blackout. No lights and no sound! Some 350 of us waited for a long time. Then we started yelling 'Help.'

It was 3.30 am when we were rescued. Some were rescued by helicopters. The rescue started at 11:30 pm and continued till the next morning.

The captain was the cause of the ship getting smashed, but he was also the one who took it to a rock and saved everyone's life."

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Image: The Costa Concordia. Inset: Ethor D'Souza
Photographs: Giampiero Sposito/Reuters

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'This has not scared me at all'

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Ravi Kumar, another crew member, has worked on the high seas for five years.

"We were rescued very late. One day we spent in a church. The next day at a hotel, and in three days we were back in Mumbai.

I am going back to the ship next month. This has not scared me at all.

The Indian embassy people came to the spot on day one and asked if there were any Indian passengers. They were told no, and they went away.

They should have asked if any Indian crew members were there.

There were 202 Indians among the crew."

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Image: The Costa Serena sails by as its sister ship, the Costa Concordia, lies on its side. Inset: Ravi Kumar
Photographs: Reuters
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