LIVORNO - The cruise ship sinking off the island of Giglio already has its villain: Captain Francesco Schettino, the disgraced commander of the Costa Concordia liner who not only may have caused the accident, but by all accounts abandoned his sinking ship rather than coordinate the rescue of its passengers.
But now the story also has its would-be hero: Coast Guard Captain Gregorio De Falco, whose voice is being replayed throughout Italy from the tape recording of his call last Friday to Schettino, angrily ordering the captain to return to his sinking cruise ship.
A cult of De Falco has already begun spreading across the Internet: "You are a real man!" "Bring us justice." "Congratulations for your professionalism!" "For each Schettino, there is a De Falco."
The "brave Captain" has not slept for three days. After a long day spent in the district attorney's office in nearby Grosseto, Tuscany, he sounds exhausted, and not very happy, when reached by phone by La Stampa. "I'm not a hero, don't play with me. I just tried to do my duty, as it was right to do. We could have saved all the passengers from the Concordia."
Once again, he is right. Life is not black and white. There are not only good and evil, courage and cowardice. We cannot chase away our ghosts by sanctifying the first commander who simply behaves as he should have.
De Falco family lives in an apartment for Navy officials in the port authority zone in Livorno. Their windows look over the harbor. The radio station is nearby, with someone reachable around the clock. Recently, for example, a fishing boat was sinking, and sent out an SOS. The official who was on call, put a sweater over his pajamas and went to work. The decision of the operations center in these cases are almost always crucial.
De Falco's wife, Rosaria, has a very steady voice. "Yes, you heard the voice of my husband on the phone. This is who he is," she says. "He left (the southern city of) Naples to go to study in Milan. He graduated from law school. Legality is part of his DNA, and always expects people to be honest, loyal, and true. This is why, now, we are shocked. It shouldn't have ended this way."
Captain De Falco will be remembered most of all for a sentence barked into the phone, at 1.46 a.m., last Saturday. "You get back on board! That is an order! …You want go home? Listen Schettino, perhaps you have saved yourself from the sea but I will make you look very bad. I will make you pay for this. Go on board! Get on that prow of the boat using the pilot ladder and tell me what can be done, how many people are there, and what their needs are. Now!”
Still bodies to find
In response, Captain Schettino mumbled into the phone a string of embarrassing half-sentences as the tragedy was taking place back on his ship. "But do you realize it is dark and here we can’t see anything…” he said. (According to news reports Wednesday, Schettino is now explaining that he abandoned the ship because he "slipped" into a lifeboat)
Of course, comparing these two men is too easy. De Falco has not spoken publicly. "It's not the moment for interviews," he says. "There are still bodies to search for."
After graduating in Milan, he worked in Mazara del Vallo, in Sicily, and then in Santa Margherita Ligure, in northern Italy. He is 46 years old, and has lived for five years in Livorno. Father to two daughters, he spends his spare time riding his motorcycle. "He loves his job even more. Really. He is always here," says Captain Francesco Paolillo, commander of Livorno port authority. "He is a beloved colleague, who is always available and ready to help."
Paolillo speaks where De Falco prefers to stay mum. "Saturday night, we were five people in the operations center. It was the best team I could have asked for. But it was not enough." Paolillo says. "It was obvious from his voice that the commander of Concordia was not sincere. But it's not the first time that a commander in trouble tries to diminish the gravity of the situation."
There was a moment when things could have been changed. During that frantic conversation, while a commander was abandoning his ship and another was calling him to order. In that moment, other lives could have been saved. Captain De Falco thinks about this, with anguish. While broadcast reporters ask him to appear live on TV. "We are here with the camera, without De Falco, we cannot do anything," says one TV crew member.
Everyone wants to hear again that authoritative, almost fatherly voice from the taped phone call. "We are not prohibiting [him to appear on TV]. It's just that he would rather avoid it," says Paolillo.
Soon enough "the brave Captain" will have to give in to the pressures, and not only from the media. He will be called to stand as the redemption of a country. He will have the duty to restore the honor of Italian sailors. He will serve his unit and his country, and do his duty, as he has always done.
Read more from La Stampa in Italian
Photo - Italian Coast Guard