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Many famous naval disasters happen far out at sea, but on January 13, 2012, the Costa Concordia wrecked just off the coast of an Italian island in relatively shallow water. The avoidable disaster killed 32 people and seriously injured many others, and left investigators wondering: Why was the luxury cruise ship sailing so close to the shore in the first place?

During the ensuing trial, prosecutors came up with a tabloid-ready explanation: The married ship captain had sailed it so close to the island to impress a much younger Moldovan dancer with whom he was having an affair.

Whether or not Captain Francesco Schettino was trying to impress his girlfriend is debatable. (Schettino insisted the ship sailed close to shore to salute other mariners and give passengers a good view.) But whatever the reason for getting too close, the Italian courts found the captain, four crew members and one official from the ship’s company, Costa Crociere (part of Carnival Corporation), to be at fault for causing the disaster and preventing a safe evacuation. The wreck was not the fault of unexpected weather or ship malfunction—it was a disaster caused entirely by a series of human errors.

“At any time when you have an incident similar to Concordia, there is never…a single causal factor,” says Brad Schoenwald, a senior marine inspector at the United States Coast Guard. “It is generally a sequence of events, things that line up in a bad way that ultimately create that incident.”

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Wrecking Near the Shore

Technicians pass in a small boat near the stricken cruise liner Costa Concordia lying aground in front of the Isola del Giglio on January 26, 2012 after hitting underwater rocks on January 13.

Technicians pass in a small boat near the stricken cruise liner Costa Concordia lying aground in front of the Isola del Giglio on January 26, 2012 after hitting underwater rocks on January 13. 

The Concordia was supposed to take passengers on a seven-day Italian cruise from Civitavecchia to Savona. But when it deviated from its planned path to sail closer to the island of Giglio, the ship struck a reef known as the Scole Rocks. The impact damaged the ship, allowing water to seep in and putting the 4,229 people on board in danger.

Sailing close to shore to give passengers a nice view or salute other sailors is known as a “sail-by,” and it’s unclear how often cruise ships perform these maneuvers. Some consider them to be dangerous deviations from planned routes. In its investigative report on the 2012 disaster, Italy’s Ministry of Infrastructures and Transports found that the Concordia “was sailing too close to the coastline, in a poorly lit shore area…at an unsafe distance at night time and at high speed (15.5 kts).”

In his trial, Captain Schettino blamed the shipwreck on Helmsman Jacob Rusli Bin, who he claimed reacted incorrectly to his order; and argued that if the helmsman had reacted correctly and quickly, the ship wouldn’t have wrecked. However, an Italian naval admiral testified in court that even though the helmsman was late in executing the captain’s orders, “the crash would’ve happened anyway.” (The helmsman was one of the four crew members convicted in court for contributing to the disaster.)

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A Questionable Evacuation

Former Captain of the Costa Concordia Francesco Schettino speaks with reporters after being aboard the ship with the team of experts inspecting the wreck on February 27, 2014 in Isola del Giglio, Italy. The Italian captain went back onboard the wreck for the first time since the sinking of the cruise ship on January 13, 2012, as part of his trial for manslaughter and abandoning ship.

Former captain of the Costa Concordia Francesco Schettino speaks with reporters after being aboard the ship with the team of experts inspecting the wreck on February 27, 2014 in Isola del Giglio, Italy. The Italian captain went back onboard the wreck for the first time since the sinking of the cruise ship on January 13, 2012, as part of his trial for manslaughter and abandoning ship.

Evidence introduced in Schettino’s trial suggests that the safety of his passengers and crew wasn’t his number one priority as he assessed the damage to the Concordia. The impact and water leakage caused an electrical blackout on the ship, and a recorded phone call with Costa Crociere’s crisis coordinator, Roberto Ferrarini, shows he tried to downplay and cover up his actions by saying the blackout was what actually caused the accident.

“I have made a mess and practically the whole ship is flooding,” Schettino told Ferrarini while the ship was sinking. “What should I say to the media?… To the port authorities I have said that we had…a blackout.” (Ferrarini was later convicted for contributing to the disaster by delaying rescue operations.)

Schettino also didn’t immediately alert the Italian Search and Rescue Authority about the accident. The impact on the Scole Rocks occurred at about 9:45 p.m. local time, and the first person to contact rescue officials about the ship was someone on the shore, according to the investigative report. Search and Rescue contacted the ship a few minutes after 10:00 p.m., but Schettino didn’t tell them what had happened for about 20 more minutes.

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A little more than an hour after impact, the crew began to evacuate the ship. But the report noted that some passengers testified that they didn’t hear the alarm to proceed to the lifeboats. Evacuation was made even more chaotic by the ship listing so far to starboard, making walking inside very difficult and lowering the lifeboats on one side, near to impossible. Making things worse, the crew had dropped the anchor incorrectly, causing the ship to flop over even more dramatically.

Through the confusion, the captain somehow made it into a lifeboat before everyone else had made it off. A coast guard member angrily told him on the phone to “Get back on board, damn it!”—a recorded sound bite that turned into a T-shirt slogan in Italy.

Schettino argued that he fell into a lifeboat because of how the ship was listing to one side, but this argument proved unconvincing. In 2015, a court found Schettino guilty of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, abandoning ship before passengers and crew were evacuated and lying to authorities about the disaster. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison. In addition to Schettino, Ferrarini and Rusli Bin, the other people who received convictions for their role in the disaster were Cabin Service Director Manrico Giampedroni, First Officer Ciro Ambrosio and Third Officer Silvia Coronica.

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