Court hearing marks first step of Costa Concordia trial
A pre-trial hearing into the shipwrecked Costa Concordia cruise liner was held in the Italian town of Grosseto on Saturday, as the boat’s Captain Francesco Schettino and eight others face charges related to the incident, which left 32 people dead.
AFP - An investigation into the Costa Concordia cruise liner tragedy which claimed 32 lives held a key court hearing on Saturday with hundreds of lawyers and survivors.
Captain Francesco Schettino and eight others, including three executives from ship owner Costa Crociere, are under investigation for the January 13 disaster although no-one has yet been charged.
To accommodate the many participants, the hearing was held in a theatre in the Tuscan town of Grosseto near Giglio island where the luxury liner crashed with 4,229 people from dozens of countries on board.
Schettino, who is under house arrest at his home near Naples, will not be attending because his lawyer said he was concerned for his safety.
"It's just as well that Schettino is not coming," one survivor, Sergio Amarotto, told reporters as he entered the closed-door hearing. "He told one lie after another to try and cover up what he had done."
Another survivor, Francesca Bertaglia, was also sharply critical of the captain's actions on the night and said: "It's unthinkable not to have sounded the alarm immediately."
Leaks from the investigation published by Italian newspapers in recent days paint an unflattering portrait of Schettino, who is accused of causing the accident and abandoning ship before all passengers were evacuated.
According to the transcript of an interrogation of the ship's second-in-command, Ciro Ambrosio, himself under investigation, Schettino was being "untruthful" in his communications with the coast guard that night.
"It seemed the captain did not want to admit the real situation," Ambrosio said in comments published by the Il Fatto Quotidiano daily.
"He was not even giving the alarm to the authorities and was giving them untruthful indications."
Ambrosio also told investigators that Schettino was not wearing his usual glasses when he took over command of the ship after dinner, just before the ship crashed, because he had forgotten them in his cabin.
He said Schettino arrived with a young Moldovan woman, Domnica Cemortan, who stayed on the bridge, apparently contravening official rules.
Ambrosio's lawyer said his client had been "the only officer on the bridge who gave different orders from those indicated by the captain."
"Ambrosio has nothing to do with this," he said.
Earlier leaks from the investigation included claims that Schettino was involved in a 2010 incident while at the helm of a cruise ship and that there was a hard-partying atmosphere of drugs and alcohol on board.
The ship's owner, Costa Crociere, has however said that Schettino was never involved in any accidents in his six years as captain.
The company, Europe's biggest cruise operator, also stressed that it implemented strict rules against drugs and excessive drinking.
Saturday's hearing will determine official mandates for the analysis of data from on-board equipment, including the ship's "black box", to try and find out who knew what when and exactly what orders were given.
Prosecutors have said they want to find out at what point Schettino lost control of the ship and when he communicated this to authorities.
Prosecutor Francesco Verusio said the data "will yield useful indications in the inquiry that could lead to developments in the investigation."
Francesco Compagna, a lawyer for a group of survivors, said: "We want to work out how captain Francesco Schettino was hired and whether all emergency procedures were followed, particularly in contacts with the coast guard."
Compagna said he also wanted to know "why an official position was never taken against the practice of saluting" -- a tradition in Italy of sailing close to picturesque spots as a way of marketing for cruise operators.
The Italian government adopted a decree this week banning the practice within two nautical miles of natural parks and marine sanctuaries, such as Giglio which is part of the Tuscan archipelago protected area.
Survivors have launched legal actions in France, Germany and the United States, including a $528-million (400-million-euro) lawsuit in the US city of Miami, home of Costa Crociere's parent company Carnival Corporation.