By Laura Viggiano
META DI SORRENTO, Italy (Reuters) - Francesco Schettino, the disgraced captain of the doomed Costa Concordia, is perhaps the most mocked and reviled man in Italy, the subject of anguished newspaper editorials on the state of the nation and the butt of jokes around the world.
Holed up under house arrest in his hometown of Meta di Sorrento, near Naples, he is accused of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship before the evacuation of the 4,200 passengers and crew was complete.
A tape of his conversation with a coastguard official who angrily ordered him to return to his stricken ship has transfixed Italy, making an instant hero of official Gregorio De Falco and cementing Schettino's image as a coward.
But in Meta di Sorrento, a picturesque town of about 8,000 that clings to the steep coastal slope and where almost everyone has some connection with the sea, there is much more sympathy.
"I know him by sight and by reputation. He's always been serious and capable," said 27-year-old Giovanni Barbato, an orthodontist, who said many in the town had been deeply offended at the way Schettino had been portrayed in the press.
"Let's be clear, if he's responsible, it's right that he accepts his responsibility and based on how he's always behaved, he will. But we're against this media witchhunt," he said.
"In this town, we're very sensitive to this story and we're all behind the captain."
Banners reading "Press and television, shame on you!" and "Captain, don't give up!" have been put up around the town and there appears to be widespread resentment at his treatment.
Hiding her face behind an umbrella, Schettino's wife declined to speak to reporters Friday. Many in the town were reluctant to be quoted by name but there was no doubt about where sympathies lay.
"The poor thing, everyone is against him, really against him. I feel sorry for him," said one resident, who declined to give her name.
Schettino's employers Costa Cruises have suspended him from duty and declared themselves an "injured party" in the case, which many industry experts believe will end up as the biggest maritime insurance loss in history.
Schettino joined Costa Cruises in 2002 as an officer responsible for safety and was promoted to captain in 2006 after serving as deputy commander.
"Like all captains in the fleet, he has taken part in continuous training and preparation programs and has passed all tests of his suitability for the position," Costa said in a statement.
Under the terms of his arrest, Schettino cannot talk to anyone apart from his legal team and close family but his lawyer said Friday he was prepared to accept his share of responsibility.
Costa, which blames him squarely for the disaster, says he was always well regarded as a competent officer although chief executive Pier Luigi Foschi told the Corriere della Sera newspaper that he had "some little character problems."
"He was considered to be a bit hard toward his colleagues. He liked to be noticed," he said.
Documents from his hearing with a judge suggest he was overwhelmed by the disaster when the ship, carrying more than 4,000 passengers and crew, ran into rocks off the Tuscan island of Giglio.
They describe him abandoning ship and watching "in a state of complete inertia" as the huge vessel keeled over on its side and his crew, most of them service staff and entertainers rather than sailors, struggled to coordinate the evacuation.
The judicial inquiry is only just beginning and doubts have already been raised about whether he was the only one responsible or whether Costa's own systems could also be faulted.
"If he's at fault, that will be cleared up and he'll pay. But like this, going through it every day and dragging his family into it, is too much," said a neighbor, who gave his name only as Salvatore.
(Writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Andrew Roche)