Not fair, say Indian crew - Comments hurt Costa staff

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  • Published 17.01.12

Jan. 16: Indian staff of the Costa Concordia, the cruise liner that keeled over off the Tuscan coast, have challenged claims that the crew had deserted passengers and were too busy saving themselves.

“We have heard of reports (about the unseemly behaviour of the crew) but they are not true. The Indian crew members made themselves safe because if we are not safe, how can we save others? Then, we saved the lives of others. We were the last to come off,” Santosh Lelhal, 31, a security guard who hails from Mumbai, told The Telegraph today.

It emerged today that of the 203 Indians on board, only one was a passenger and the person has been listed as safe. The remaining 202 Indians belonged to the crew, of which one — Terence Russell Rebello — is missing. A crew member told this newspaper that Rebello, a waiter, was last seen helping passengers.

Damning headlines in the Daily Mail and elsewhere — “Forget women and children first. Burly crewmen led the race for the lifeboats” — were discounted by Lelhal and others, at least as far as the Indian crew were concerned.

“We are safe, we are all safe, though we have heard one person is missing. This is like being given a second life,” said Lelhal, who had taken up his post barely a month and a half ago. He said when the ship began listing and the captain gave the order to abandon ship, the Indian crew knew what to do.

Lelhal, speaking from a small hotel not far from the coastline, played down comparisons with the Titantic “which went down in deep water. Here we were very close to shore which is why so many lives were saved.”

So far, six are confirmed dead. The vessel appears to be moving off the rock where it has been lodged amid fears it will topple over and sink 100 metres to the bottom of the sea.

Lelhal did not discuss what caused the Costa Concordia to be holed on a route that ought to have been familiar.

Investigators are looking into reports that the ship’s captain might have been “showing off” when he steered the vessel too close to rocks. ( )

Debabrata Saha, the Indian ambassador in Rome, was today on the island of Giglio to supervise the rescue of the Indian nationals. Saha was accompanied by two Indian officials, V. Negi and Sunil Aggarwal.

An embassy spokesperson said that “202 Indian nationals are safe. This includes a woman passenger, whose name has been given to us as a man’s name, Shambhu Tripathi. But one crew member, Terence Russell Rebello, is missing.”

External affairs minister S.M. Krishna said India was making efforts to trace Rebello and was in touch with his brother Kevin who had reached Italy.

Lelhal is nursing hopes of returning to the cruise line. “This is my third contract. We have been asked to put in our papers as soon as we reach Mumbai. There are other ships in this company. My wife and daughter know I am safe.”

When news broke last night that 130 Indians were safe, an impression had gained ground that they were vacationers. But the real picture emerged today. Almost a fifth of the 1,000-strong crew were Indian while 296 were Filipino. The rest of the crew were from Honduras, Colombia and other nationalities — in all representing 20 nationalities.

A rescued Indian crew member The Telegraph spoke to said Rebello was last seen helping passengers. “The crew members, whether Filipino or Colombians or Indians, tried to the best of our ability to help passengers survive the shipwreck. Comments by some of the passengers that we were unhelpful have hurt us,” said the crew member who wanted to be identified only by his first name Michael.

An Indian official said: “What we know from them is that while the ship’s captain deserted the ship, the crew members continued to help passengers with life jackets.”

John Fernandes, a 28-year-old waiter from Goa, had said yesterday that “some of the crew had to jump into the sea to save their lives as they were on the tilted side of the ship”. But he had added that the others tried their best to help the passengers.

News agencies quoted a Colombian crewman, Edgard Lopez Sanchez, as saying that he and his colleagues saved 500 to 600 people. “We are the heroes — the Colombians, the Hondurans, the Chinese, the crew made up of 20 nationalities,” he said.

Several passengers had said the crew members were either unhelpful or lacked training to handle lifeboats. One passenger claimed that the crew members were more concerned about saving their lives than helping passengers.

Passenger Benji Smith told reporters that he made his own rope ladder to save himself and his wife, adding that the crew members didn’t know how to work the boat. “I felt like the disaster itself was manageable, but I felt like the crew was going to kill us,” Smith was quoted as having told agencies.