By Steve Scherer
GROSSETO, Italy (Reuters) - When the Costa Concordia was listing heavily on its starboard side, Ciro Iosso and other crew members calmed panicking passengers and guided hundreds onto lifeboats even after the captain had abandoned ship.
Below, as the engine room flooded in minutes, third officer Andrea Carollo saw that nothing could be done there and rushed to help passengers waiting to get off the cruise liner, holed on a rock on an Italian island.
Anxious to show that they at least had done their duty, mariners distanced themselves from criticism, directed particularly at their captain, that followed the night rescue.
"I could have saved myself and not done my duty, but I didn't. I waited and helped get at least 300 people on lifeboats," said Iosso, an electrician on the doomed cruise liner.
"I'm very proud, and above all, I have a clear conscience," he said as he waited for a train ticket to take him home to his wife and five-year-old son in Torre del Greco, near Naples.
The crew's story has been overshadowed by passenger complaints of chaos and poor communication during the evacuation and above all by the mistakes and alleged cowardice of Captain Francesco Schettino, who is accused of causing the accident and then abandoning ship.
Around 100 crew members have been cooped up in a hotel in the town Grosseto, not far from the island of Giglio where the accident occurred.
Along with the rest of Italy, they had heard the dramatic recording of a coast guard officer ordering Schettino back on board to lead the evacuation and many feel unfairly tarred by the accusations against the ship's commander.
"Unlike the captain, we were there until the end. We did all we could to avoid catastrophe," said the 26-year-old Carollo, third officer in the engine room.
Carollo's story is emblematic. After working a 12-hour shift, he was sleeping when the ship passed too close to the island of Giglio and ran into sharp rocks at 9:45 p.m.
By the time he jumped out of bed, dressed and opened the door to his cabin, there was already water rushing down the hallway.
He reported for duty in the engine room, and through portals in closed, air-tight hatches, he could see that water had enveloped the generators and engines within just 10 minutes.
"Within 15 minutes, the engine room told the bridge that there was nothing to be done. The situation was beyond repair," Carollo said.
He reported to his emergency post, a life raft for 35 crew members, and awaited the abandon-ship order, which didn't come for over an hour, prompting many junior officers to take matters into their own hands and begin evacuating passengers.
"We didn't wait for the captain to give the order to abandon ship. We saw how serious the situation was, and we did it ourselves," said Alberto Fiorito, 28, an officer and machinist on the ship.
PLATES OF FOOD
Such stories have been largely submerged under a flood of complaints that the crew, the vast majority of them service staff rather than qualified mariners, mismanaged the rescue and left passengers waiting for hours to be evacuated.
Crew members felt slandered by the passengers who complained that they didn't speak Italian and couldn't communicate and say they put the lives of the passengers before their own.
"Some of the passengers asked us to retrieve their luggage, and others asked for plates of food as they sat in the lifeboats," said Karnaatha Rameshana, 37, from Mumbai.
She was the only female member of the ship's 11-member security staff. She personally put a blind woman on a lifeboat, and saw two members of the crew carry passengers in wheelchairs on their backs and into lifeboats.
Some passengers had panic attacks, and children had to be calmed and kept close to their parents.
"You have to be prepared mentally for an emergency, and we were. We have been given training and we know what to do. Every week we have to train for different scenarios," Rameshana said.
"As we waited for the abandon ship order, we kept the passengers ready. Everyone had life jackets and everyone was ready when we abandoned ship, including the children," she said.
Waiting for train or airplane tickets to return home, crew from Italy, the Philippines, India, Indonesia and China filled out insurance forms and tried on the replacement clothes and shoes delivered in large Decathlon bags by representatives of Costa Crociere, the company that owns the Concordia.
"We're very disappointed that the media are portraying us as if we weren't prepared, or that we didn't do our duty. It's not right," said Iosso.
"I hope that our story gets told because I want to be able to save that article and show my boy one day that I did something important, something that should make him proud of his father."
(Editing by Giles Elgood)