Domnica Cemortan, the Moldovan blonde tour rep who was accused of causing the sinking of the Costa Concordia by romantically distracting Captain Francesco Schettino has given her first full newspaper interview “to set the record straight”.
Domnica Cemortan, 25, had been dining and flirting with Captain Francesco Schettino, 52, before the disaster and was with him on the bridge when the ship struck rocks on January 13.
It was widely reported that Francesco Schettino, now known universally as Captain Coward, may have been trying to impress Domnica Cemortan when his ship sailed off course.
For the past six weeks the Moldovan young woman has been at the centre of worldwide attempts to uncover precisely what happened on the night that up to 32 people lost their lives off the Italian coastline.
Rumors about the nature of her relationship with Francesco Schettino have led to her being called a siren, a woman of loose morals, and everything in between.
Through it all Domnica Cemortan has repeatedly denied any romance between her and the married captain. Even after her luggage and bikinis were discovered in the captain’s submerged cabin, she insisted it was “all lies”.
Last week, after The Mail on Sunday tracked her down in her homeland, where she lives with her mother and 2-year-old daughter, Domnica Cemortan finally revealed her true feelings for the discredited Captain Francesco Schettino.
The Costa Concordia captain is currently under house arrest on suspicion of multiple manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing shipwreck. If convicted, Francesco Schattino faces 15 years in jail.
Domnica Cemortan admits that not only had she been alone with the captain in his cabin earlier during the evening of the tragedy, but that they had shared a passionate kiss, which she suspects was a prelude to them becoming lovers.
The Moldovan woman had previously worked on the ship for three weeks translating for Russian passengers and it was then that she got to know Francesco Schettino. When her contract ended the month before the tragedy, Domnica Cemortan returned as a paying passenger on the ill-fated cruise.
Domnica Cemortan says that although she had a serious “crush” on Francesco Schettino, she was never “in love” with him and their affair never really got started.
She admits that her luggage had been left in the captain’s cabin, but says it was only a temporary arrangement while she waited for a cabin to become available.
Domnica Cemortan has given her own eyewitness account of what happened on the bridge of the vessel in the minutes before it ran aground with more than 4,000 people on board.
Swathed in black fur against the biting cold and with her face devoid of make-up, Domnica Cemortan appears even more youthful than she actually is.
Domnica Cemortan says: “So much rubbish has been written about me that I think I must now defend my reputation. They are acting as if I’m some sort of femme fatale, but I don’t sleep around.
“Yes, I was very attracted to Captain Schettino and he was clearly interested in me. I admit that I had a big crush on him because he was very good-looking and very charming.”
She adds: “He once told me that I had both beauty and brains. What woman would not want to hear such words – especially when there were many women much more beautiful than me on board the ship? I knew he liked me and I was very flattered by his attention.
“When I worked on the ship he had made it clear that he thought me special. I’m a woman and I know these things. I could tell by the way he laughed at my jokes and how he looked at me; there was always a twinkle in his eyes when we spoke.
“I admit that I was attracted to him, but honestly, we did not have sex.
“He was always respectful when I was a member of his staff, but once I was a passenger then it was different. I think we probably would have ended up in bed, eventually, but I never found out because of the crash.
“Of course, I’m very sorry that so many people died or were hurt that night. It was a tragic accident and people are looking to find someone to blame. Maybe there was human error, maybe the captain was in some way responsible; I don’t know. For me, it was more a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
This is the second time that an ocean tragedy has wrecked Domnica Cemortan’s life. She was only eight when her father drowned while swimming in the Black Sea during a family holiday in Ukraine. A relative has suggested that Francesco Schettino’s resemblance to her late father may have been part of his attraction.
Domnica Cemortan grew up with her older brother and their mother Vera, a doctor, in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. She trained as a dancer, winning scholarships to study first in Romania and then France, where she lived from 2006 to 2009. She stopped performing because of injuries.
Domnica Cemortan’s daughter, the result of a long-term relationship with a fellow Moldovan, was born in Paris in January 2010.
By the end of 2010, Domnica Cemortan and her daughter were living back in her home country.
“I was a single mother and I decided it was best to get back out to work,” she says.
“A friend who worked for the cruise company saw a vacancy and told me about it.
“I speak four languages, so I applied and got the job as an international hostess for Russian passengers on the Costa Magica cruise ship, sailing around the Mediterranean.”
Domnica Cemortan’s initial contract was for October to December 2011. Then on December 6 she was asked to cover for a colleague on the Costa Concordia, the Costa Magica’s sister ship. Although she says the Costa Concordia’s dashing captain barely noticed her at first, it is clear from a photograph taken of them in a restaurant on the Cote d’Azur on December 13, which was published in Italian magazine Chi, that she was already smitten.
The woman says: “Once or twice he bought me a drink in the ship’s bar, but it was always in a group situation. It was the same when we went for a seafood dinner at Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Cote d’Azur in December. There was a big party of us and I was not the only one who had a photo taken with him.”
Domnica Cemortan has admitted that by her second week on the ship, colleagues were teasing her about the “spark” they noticed between her and the captain but she denies that they ever “crossed the line”.
Domnica Cemortan says: “He offered me a drink one night when I was in one of the lounges with a friend and on at least another occasion. But the only time we were alone on that trip was once in his office, when I went to give him a report. He told me that I was not only beautiful, but smart as well. It was a nice feeling, but neither of us did anything wrong.”
It is difficult to believe that a man of the world such as Francesco Schettino, who some former colleagues claim has an eye for the ladies, would not have acted on his attraction. It’s also hard to believe Domnica Cemortan’s claim that he knew nothing about her decision to buy a ticket for a cruise on the ship, after her three weeks’ work ended.
Domnica Cemortan was given a 50% discount, even though she had not officially been with the company long enough to qualify for the staff’s cheap rates, and boarded the ship at 5:00 p.m. on the day of the tragedy in the Italian port of Civitavecchia.
She says: “I don’t think he knew I was coming back because I didn’t tell anyone except the entertainment director, who was my immediate boss. Because of the discount I was able to find out which cabin I had only once we had set sail. So the first thing I did was call my boss, who said that he was in the captain’s office and I should come up.
“When I arrived, the captain looked surprised to see me. My boss said I still had to wait for a cabin and the captain said that I could leave my luggage in his cabin. I then went to see my friends on board. When I called my boss later, he suggested I should go to the restaurant at 9:00 p.m. to get a cabin key.”
During the interview Domnica Cemortan produced the card key for the cabin she had been allocated.
She initially denies a passenger’s account that she was dining with Francesco Schettino in the last hours before the crash.
“How does this person know it was me? They have some grainy picture of a woman, but it could have been anyone,” she says.
Then Domnica Cemortan offers a sanitized version of being with Francesco Schettino in his cabin before dinner.
“After saying hello to my friends on the ship I returned to change for dinner at about 8:00 p.m. – that was the practice when I was a part of the crew. The captain was there but he politely left me to change.
“He came back in as I was leaving and said that I looked stunning. He took my hand and kissed it.”
Domnica Cemortan coyly admits that he had grasped her in a passionate embrace and, to her surprise, kissed her hard on the mouth. But she insists the intimacy stopped there.
“I didn’t want people to know this because they might get the wrong idea,” Domnica Cemortan explains, then refuses to say any more about the incident.
As for dining with the captain, she says she joined Francesco Schettino and her (male) boss only for dessert and coffee.
Domnica Cemortan says: “Afterwards, the captain invited me to the bridge, to <<see a beautiful panorama of the island>> and we left the restaurant at about 9:30 p.m.” The island was Giglio, off the Tuscan coast, and tragedy was about to unfold.
It is clear that Francesco Schettino was enthralled by the vivacious young woman and she was equally smitten. Did the excitement affect his judgment? Domnica Cemortan says it did not. She watched the drama from a corner of the bridge.
“I was there for about ten minutes. I could see the lights of the island; I thought it was normal to go so close. The captain issued orders to about a dozen officers on the glass-fronted deck. They were speaking in Italian and marine terms, so I didn’t really understand.
“The crash happened about 15 seconds afterwards. It was all very sudden. There was no bang.
“We didn’t feel the collision because we were at the front and it happened at the back. But the sirens came on and warning lights were flashing on the console and alarms blaring.
“It seemed as if they were in control, but there was a bit of rushing about and shouting. Other hostesses arrived on the bridge to make announcements in the different languages. It was a full-scale emergency, but we had all been well trained in preparation for such a disaster.”
No one could have expected the huge vessel to sink, in relatively shallow waters, off the island within hours of leaving port.
To compound matters, Francesco Schettino delayed ordering an evacuation of the 4,200 passengers and crew for about an hour. The death toll stands at 25, with seven people still unaccounted for.
Domnica Cemortan has defended Francesco Schettino from the outset and continues to do so. She argues that it would have taken time to ascertain the damage, which is why she didn’t make a dash for the lifeboats.
“The ship very quickly turned 60 degrees on its side and the sirens indicated that it was leaking, so I knew that I needed warm clothes,” Domnica Cemortan says.
The woman went into the captain’s cabin to change back into trousers, a jumper and jacket, grabbing her handbag along the way.
“When I returned to the bridge I saw the captain looking very much in control. I watched as the boat listed to one side. He asked me to stay because I speak four languages, while colleagues were told to get to their muster stations.
“At the end I saw the captain there with just two officers. He was co-ordinating the evacuation. Then he saw me and said I should go to deck three where people were getting into lifeboats. He said, <<Save yourself>>. I thought he looked very calm so it made me feel confident that it would be OK. I checked my watch and it was about 11:50 p.m. when I left him on the bridge.
“People say he’s a coward and that he didn’t act to save people, but it’s not true. He steered the ship into shallow water and made it easier for people to either swim or be rescued. I think he saved a lot of lives that night and was very courageous.”
Domnica Cemortan made her way gingerly down five decks on the listing vessel, in virtual darkness.
“If I didn’t know the ship I might never have made it.
“It was cold and I could hear things falling and people shouting. It was terrible. I think that some passengers got confused and maybe forgot where to go in an emergency.”
She waited about 15 minutes for a place in a lifeboat.
The next time Domnica Cemortan saw Francesco Schettino was about 5:00 a.m., on land.
“He looked absolutely shattered,” the woman says.
“Of course I felt sorry for him. He was always kind to me and I think he’s a good person.”
Domnica Cemortan and Francesco Schettino have not been in contact since the accident, though their names are now intrinsically entwined in a naval disaster that may have been the result of their attraction for each other, but she still seems to harbor deep affection for the captain.
“I would dearly love to speak with him again,” Domnica Cemortan says with a wistful smile.
“I want to know what went wrong and how he’s coping.
“It’s not that I miss him, but he was a nice man and I think they are making him into a kind of monster.
“Everyone is blaming him for what happened, but I don’t think he did anything wrong. It was just a terrible accident.”