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Survivors pack courtroom as shipwreck captain hears evidence

The Costa Concordia cruise ship lays near the harbour of Giglio Porto on October 14, 2012. An Italian court is expected to determine in the Tuscan city of Grosseto from October 15, 2012. (AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE)

GROSSETO, Italy: The captain of the cruise ship that crashed into an Italian reef appeared in court Monday to hear the evidence against him, while passengers who survived the deadly shipwreck and the families of those who died showed up just “to look him in the eye.”

The case of Francesco Schettino, 51, was of such interest that a theater had to be turned into a courtroom in the Tuscan city of Grosseto to accommodate those who had a legitimate claim to be at the closed-door hearing.

Wearing dark glasses and a suit, Schettino used a back entrance to slip into the theater, making no comment to reporters outside. Lawyers said he listened intently to the proceedings, where his attorneys raised some objections to the evidence being submitted.

Thirty-two people died after Schettino, in a stunt, took his Costa Concordia cruise ship off course and brought it close to the Tuscan island of Giglio on the night of Jan. 13. The ship then ran aground and capsized. Schettino himself became a focus for international distain for having left the ship before everyone was evacuated.

Hearings this week will help decide whether the judge will order a trial for Schettino, who is accused of manslaughter, causing the shipwreck and abandoning ship while passengers and crew were still aboard. He denies the accusations and hasn’t been charged. Any trial is unlikely to begin before next year.

Crash survivors, victims’ relatives and their lawyers attended the hearing on the evidence against Schettino and eight others accused in the shipwreck, including crew members and officials from ship owner Costa Crociere SpA. “We want to look him in the eye to see how he will react to the accusations,” said German survivor Michael Liessen.

A key question is how much of the blame should Schettino himself bear, and how much responsibility for the disaster lies with his crew and employer, Costa Crociere, a division of the Miami-based Carnival Corp.

Last month, court-appointed experts delivered a 270-page report of what went wrong that night based on an analysis of data recorders, ship communications equipment, testimony and other evidence.

The experts, who included two admirals and two engineers, laid most of the blame for the collision with the reef and the botched evacuation on Schettino. But they also noted that not all crew members understood Italian, not all had current safety and evacuation certifications, and not all passengers had had the chance to participate in evacuation drills.

While the experts’ findings heavily faulted Schettino and some of the other crew, lawyers for some survivors and families of the victims are seeking to point blame at the corporate level, alleging negligence.

Among them is Peter Ronai, a lawyer for the family of a Hungarian violinist who, survivors recounted, gave his life vest to a child before perishing himself.

“The reason people died was not the captain” alone, Ronai said before entering the hearing. “There was no reason for anyone to die.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 16, 2012, on page 10.

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