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Captain in Italian cruise ship disaster hears evidence in court

 

The former captain of the shipwrecked Costa Concordia cruise liner came to an Italian court on Monday to hear the evidence against him, while passengers who survived the Jan. 13 collision in which 32 died showed up to look him in the eye.

Wearing dark glasses, Francesco Schettino used a back entrance to slip into a theater in the Tuscan city of Grosseto that is serving as a courtroom. He made no comment to reporters outside.

The Concordia ran aground and capsized off the Tuscan island of Giglio after Schettino took it off course and brought it close to the island as part of a stunt.

Hearings this week will help decide whether a judge will order trial for Schettino, who is charged with manslaughter, causing the shipwreck and abandoning ship while passengers and crew were still aboard. He denies the charges. Any trial is unlikely to begin before next year.

More than 1,000 survivors, victims' relatives and their lawyers are attending the closed-door hearing to discuss the evidence against Schettino and eight other defendants, including crew members and officials from Concordia owner Costa Crociere SpA, which is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp.

"We want to look him in the eye to see how he will react to the accusations," said German survivor Michael Liessen, 50, who was attending Monday's hearing along with his wife.

Last month, four 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 -- two admirals and two engineers -- lay 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 certification for evacuation procedures, and not all passengers had participated in evacuation drills.

Passengers described a confused and delayed evacuation, with many of the lifeboats unable to be lowered because the boat was listing too far to one side. Some of the 4,200 people aboard jumped into the Mediterranean and swam to Giglio, while others had to be plucked from the vessel by rescue helicopters hours after the collision.

Schettino has insisted that by guiding the stricken ship to shallower waters near Giglio's port instead of immediately ordering an evacuation he potentially saved lives. He has claimed that another official, and not he, was at the helm when the ship struck.

The timeline in the expert report, however, makes clear that he had assumed command six minutes before the ship struck the reef.