ROME (Reuters) - Hours after the Costa Concordia's captain had abandoned ship, and after helping dozens of passengers to safety, Carlos Garrone stripped off his clothes and plunged into the freezing waters off Giglio island and rescued a drowning fellow crew member.
As the operation to salvage the massive cruise liner moves forward, its pace governed by the vagaries of the winter weather, passengers are lining up to claim to compensation. But like several of his shipmates, and despite the trauma of the midnight wreck, Garrone has no plans to leave his job.
"Maybe some people won't want to sail again after living through such a traumatic experience," said Garrone, an engineer who lives in Valencia, Spain.
"I risked my life to jump into the water and save a drowning man. To know I saved a man makes me feel good about myself. For me it was a positive experience," he said.
As divers search for the missing, and salvage crews prepare to recover fuel from the carcass of the Costa Concordia, other crew members interviewed by Reuters also said they had no intention of giving up a life at sea.
It is of course their job, but many of the more than 1,000-strong crew come from places where jobs are in short supply and they have shown no sign of wanting to criticise their employer during a general economic downturn even if they may have entertained some doubts about returning to work at sea.
After the accident, Costa Cruises told the crew it would pay them until the end of their current contract and that their jobs were assured. But some crew members were worried.
"The company said I could decide when I wanted to go back to work, and that I could take all the time I needed," Ciro Iosso, 33, an electrician for more than a decade with Costa, told Reuters. Because of his wife and five-year-old son, Iosso said he had some doubts about going back to sea.
Iosso commandeered a lifeboat that had already been put in the water with other crew members and said he personally evacuated at least 300 off the ship.
"LEFT A SCAR"
"I'm not absolutely sure I'll go back on a ship. The accident left a scar that won't ever go away," Iosso said. "I hope this feeling passes soon and I won't be afraid to go back on a ship, because it's what I do best."
In a shrinking economy, demand for ship's officers slightly outpaced supply in 2010, according to the International Shipping Federation in London, and the cruise industry has been the fastest growing leisure travel market for decades, with a passenger growth rate of 7.4 percent since 1980.
The accident that killed 17 and left 15 missing has so far had a limited impact on cruise bookings, Frederic Martinez, chief executive of the French unit of Royal Caribbean - a Costa Cruises competitor - told Reuters.
In the two weeks since the accident, "we didn't notice a very strong slowdown, or a wave of cancellations, we received very few worried phone calls. We were positively surprised," Martinez said.
But passengers would have booked in advance, and in many cases before the Costa Concordia hit the rocks.
Two weeks after the shipwreck, however, questions are still being raised about how the disaster was handled and whether there are shortcomings in crew training and hiring practices.
A crew member, Gary Lobaton, was the first to file a lawsuit against Costa's parent company Carnival in a U.S. district court. More are expected. Lobaton's lawyers said in his court filing that he was not aware of the "dangerous conditions" of the cruise ship until it was too late to abandon it safely.
Italy's top-ranking Coast Guard official, Marco Brusco, said last week that the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, lost "a precious hour," which made evacuating the ship more difficult.
Had the order been given earlier, "the lifeboats could have been launched calmly, people could have been reassured," Brusco said in testimony to a committee in the Italian Senate.
Passengers have complained the evacuation was chaotic, with some left waiting in lifeboats for two hours before being able to leave the ship. Several bodies were found by divers in submerged evacuation assembly points, wearing life vests.
"Some crew panicked because they didn't have adequate training," said Ignacio Benigno, 34, a supervisor chef in one of the ship's restaurants. "It was really difficult to prepare the lifeboats in that situation."
Benigno, who is Filipino, was hired by an agency that provides crews to cruise companies like Costa. Both the agency, Magsaysay Maritime Corp, and Benigno said that he had received the proper training.
Unlike Garrone, whose father retired as a Costa mechanic and whose uncle is a retired Costa captain, Benigno started out working in hotels in Manila. Like Garrone, Benigno plans to go back to sea with Costa.
"I promised to go back to Costa," Benigno said. "Many of us are returning to Costa Cruises because we're like one big family."
COMPANY DEFENDS CREW
The company has defended the actions of the crew, which it credits for having saved the lives of more than 4,000 people on board, and said they had proper training.
"I must say with pride that the emergency evacuation of the ship was conducted exclusively by personnel on the Costa Concordia, from the officers to the regular crew members of all types and ranks," Costa Chief Executive Pier Luigi Foschi told Italy's Senate on Wednesday.
Foschi, who took over at Costa after 23 years in the elevator industry working for Otis Elevator, had no previous maritime or cruise industry experience.
In the aftermath of the wreck, however, outside experts have said the cruise industry has a generally good safety record and Costa is no exception.
"Costa is generally considered a responsible company, which follows good practice in training and hiring," said Sam Dawson, a spokesman for the International Transport Workers' Federation, a union umbrella body.
But the wreck of the Costa Concordia suggests problems may lie elsewhere. While crews are all meant to speak English, the same rule does not apply to passengers.
"On large passenger ships it is not unusual to have several dozen nationalities amongst the passengers and amongst the crew, and the experience of many accidents and in an emergency is people tend to revert to their own language," said Andrew Linington with the seafarers' union Nautilus International.
"Conveying some kind of complex announcement and instruction in a highly stressful situation is inherently difficult when (many) nationalities are involved," he said.
The industry is of course anxious to stress its safety credentials. Cruise ships have "the best safety record in the travel industry," according to the European Cruise Council.
"After an airplane crashes, people keep flying," said Marco Guida, 25, who was a second officer of the engine room on the Concordia. Guida, who is from a small town just down the road from Captain Schettino's home town, comes from a family of sailors, including his brother and his father.
"We can't just give up. Being a seaman is a passion, and it's not the kind of thing that you turn your back on."
(Additional reporting by Ben Berkowitz, Manny Mogato and Jonathan Saul; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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