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Francesco Schettino: Captain (Un)courageous

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Growing up in an Italian coastal village, Francesco Schettino lived, breathed and dreamed the sea. He enrolled in the nautical institute and landed work in shipping, then on a ferry and finally a treasured job with Europe’s leading cruise company, Carnival’s Costa Crociere, achieving the rank of captain in 2006. “Everyone in our town came to realize how good he was,” Capt. Francesco Amato, a childhood pal, tells PEOPLE. “He was the best.”

Which makes all the more puzzling the Jan. 13 disaster in which the Costa Concordia struck rocks after steering perilously close to the central Italian island of Giglio-a showboating move seamen call “taking a bow.” The luxury liner ran aground, sending some 4,000 passengers and crew into a panic; at press time, 16 people were dead, 110 injured and 23 missing. Most disturbing: reports that Schettino, 52, fled his vessel and defied Coast Guard orders to get back on ship.

With the investigation likely to last months, there are no easy answers. Speculation has centered on Domnica Cemortan, a 25-year-old ex-dancer who, witnesses say, was seen near the bridge at the time schettino set the ill-fated course. Cemortan denies rumors of an illicit romance, and schettino’s wife, Fabiola Russo, has stood by her husband. The captain, who tested negative for drugs or alcohol, is an easy scapegoat, friends and family say. “My brother is not a coward,” says his sister Giulia, adding that his maneuvers after the collision “saved thousands of lives.”

The families of the dead and missing and traumatized survivors have little sympathy. “The captain abandoned that ship,” says passenger Alex Beach, 65, of Albuquerque, N.Mex. “He cost people their lives.”