By Laura Viggiano and James Mackenzie
NAPLES, Italy (Reuters) - Francesco Schettino, the captain of the doomed cruise liner Costa Concordia, knew as soon as his ship struck a rock off the island of Giglio on January 13 that he had made a catastrophic error and a 30-year career at sea was ending in disgrace.
Bringing the 114,500 tonne vessel to within a stone's throw of shore, he had intended to perform a "salute" to the island for the benefit of Antonello Tievoli, the ship's head waiter and a native of Giglio.
But as he came to within a quarter of a nautical mile of the coast, in water he believed to be deep enough to be safe, he saw foam breaking on what appeared to be a submerged outcrop and turned sharply, exposing the side of the hull to the sharp rock.
"I may have done something rash, I did do something rash, but God would have made it alright for me if I hadn't set the rudder to starboard," he told magistrates investigating the accident, according to a transcript.
"That's what I remember from that moment and I tell it to you with the utmost sincerity, because as an intelligent man, as a commander, I can't hide, I have to take responsibility for the fact that I made a judgment error," he said.
At least 17 people died and 15 are still missing after the accident in which the 290 meter-long Concordia, built for half a billion euros less than six years ago, capsized just meters from shore.
Schettino, 51, has been blamed for the accident by prosecutors, by the owners of the ship and, overwhelmingly, by Italian public opinion and media which represent him as having shamed the whole country.
Schettino has been under house arrest since the week after the catastrophe, accused of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship before the confused and haphazardly managed evacuation of more than 4,200 passengers and crew was complete.
He has been severely criticized not just for coming too close to shore at an unsafe speed, but for a long delay in informing authorities and evacuating after a rock tore a gash in the hull that flooded the engine rooms and disabled the giant ship.
His image has been further tarnished by a recording of a conversation in which a furious coast guard official is heard ordering him to return to the ship and take charge of the evacuation.
In a preliminary ruling, the judge in charge of the investigation said Schettino had shown "incredible carelessness" and a "total inability to manage the successive phases of the emergency".
That view was backed up by several members of the crew.
"In my opinion, the captain is the only one responsible for this disaster," said Carlos Garrone, an engineer who lives in Valencia, Spain. "The decision-making responsibility lies with the captain. It's all up to him."
Schettino himself insisted that he had tried unsuccessfully to return to the ship after falling on to the roof of a lifeboat, but he admitted that he had been devastated by the disaster.
"Everyone had life vests on, but for me...well my life at that moment had been destroyed, I wasn't interested in life vests ... it was over for me," he said.
Married with a daughter, Naples-born Schettino has been held up to condemnation and ridicule throughout the world, but the caricatured image of "Captain Cowardly" hides an experienced and respected ship's officer.
According to his own testimony and that of people who know him, his three decades at sea took him as far afield as Brazil, Tunisia and Tierra del Fuego, and included time on oil tankers as well as on ocean-going passenger ships.
Giuseppe Ruggiero, who first met him in 1987 when they were both preparing to gain their long distance captain's licenses and who saw him just two days before the accident, said Schettino was an exceptionally thorough and capable officer.
"He has always been above the average. When you talk about work with him, you can see he's a notch or two above the others," he told Reuters. "He was then when we were on the course, and he still is today."
Schettino joined Costa Cruises in 2002 as safety officer and was made captain in 2006, but he has been at odds with the company over aspects of the accident, in particular over the practice of "salutes" which he has said were common and encouraged.
Costa, a unit of the world's largest cruise operator Carnival Corp, has said ships do approach shore for display purposes, but says such passages are always performed safely and at a secure distance.
The company, which faces a series of individual and class action suits from lawyers representing the passengers and crew of the ship, has blamed Schettino for the disaster and suspended him from duty.
One place in Italy where Schettino can still count on some support is his home town.
Meta di Sorrento, south of Naples, is a picturesque town of about 8,000 inhabitants that clings to the steep coastal slope planted with lemon groves; Schettino's white apartment building lies in a narrow alleyway around 300 yards from the sea.
"Costa doesn't just take the first person that comes along and put them in command of a ship," said Michele Miccio, a retired captain and president of the Casina dei Capitani, a mutual association for ships' captains based in the town.
"One thing is sure. Franco Schettino knows what he's talking about when he expresses an opinion and he hasn't lost that," he told Reuters, adding that Schettino was known for having "charisma" and a strong personality.
"He was very hard on himself and the crew, and in my opinion that hasn't helped him," he said.
Under the terms of his house arrest, Schettino is barred from talking to anyone apart from his lawyer and close family.
In an interview with the Corriere della Sera newspaper on January 20, the chief executive of Costa, Pier Luigi Foschi, said Schettino had "some little character problems".
"He was considered a bit hard towards his colleagues. He liked to be noticed," he told the paper.
Schettino's lawyer Bruno Leporatti has complained that his client has been made a "scapegoat" in the accident.
His notoriety is now global, featuring in the run-up to November's U.S. presidential election at the weekend when a leading Republican accused Democratic President Barack Obama of abandoning the ship of state like "our own little Captain Schettino", CBS news said on its website.
Amid the welter of conflicting evidence, reconciling the different views of Schettino's character is a difficult task.
Leporatti told judges his client's image has been damaged by lurid media reports suggesting "the captain used to stand around at the bar with beautiful women rather than staying on the bridge at work".
There have been particular questions about the presence in the area of the bridge of Domnica Cemortan, a Moldovan who had worked as a hostess on the ship but who was travelling on holiday at the time of the accident.
Whether the presence on board of the 25-year-old former dancer has any relevance to the accident is unclear.
She told prosecutors that she was fascinated by Schettino, and that she had left personal items including cosmetics in his cabin. In television interviews, she spoke in glowing terms of his competence, and praised his response to the disaster.
Questioned by magistrates, Schettino acknowledged her presence in the bridge area at around the time of the accident, but said she had not come near the actual command zone, and he appeared not to be completely sure of her last name.
He did however deny any suggestion that he was intoxicated, saying he did not drink, smoke or take drugs, a statement backed by his former classmate Giuseppe Ruggiero, who said he had only ever seen Schettino drink Coca Cola.
In the transcript of his interview with magistrates, Schettino repeats himself and struggles to describe the sequence of actions he took as the disaster unfolded, giving the impression of a man who was overwhelmed by events.
Prosecutors are severely critical of his leaving the ship before the evacuation was complete, which they describe as a "refusal to do his duty."
At the same time, they acknowledge his expertise as a seaman and have said he may have saved thousands of lives after the impact by bringing the ship to within a few meters of the shore, where it settled on a rock ledge in some 20 meters of water.
Salvatore Esposito, a retired captain who had Schettino under his command some 20 years ago and who described him as "extremely capable commander," expressed sympathy for his position and said he had saved many lives.
"Certainly at Giglio, he made a mistake, these are things that can happen to everybody," he said. "But the maneuver he performed afterwards is very difficult and it was done perfectly."
Whether or not such considerations are taken into account at a pretrial hearing on March 20 and any later trial remains to be seen, but whatever the result, Schettino's seagoing career appears to be over.
"He knows his life has to change, that on that day, January 13, his life changed," Leporatti told judge Valeria Montesarchio four days after the accident.
(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer and Gavin Jones in Rome, Silvia Ognibene in Florence and Ilaria Polleschi in Milan; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)