GROSSETO, Italy (AFP) – Captain Francesco Schettino, dubbed Italy's "most hated man" by tabloids after he crashed a luxury cruise ship in 2012 with the loss of 32 lives, goes on trial on Tuesday charged with their manslaughter.
The 52-year-old, also dubbed "Captain Coward" for abandoning ship while terrified passengers were still trapped on board, was expected in court in Grosseto, the city closest to the shipwreck off the picturesque island of Giglio.
With his slicked-back hair and macho swagger, Schettino has been depicted as a blackguard who was busy showing off in front of a blonde female guest when he performed a risky manoeuvre to "salute" the island which ended in tragedy.
"Madonna, what have I done?" he was heard gasping on audio recordings from the bridge just after the crash.
But some lawyers have been saying he should not be the sole defendant and Costa Crociere, Europe's biggest cruise operator, should share the blame.
Up to 450 witnesses and 250 plaintiffs could be called during the trial, which has been long-awaited by the families of the victims, although the actual start of deliberations may be postponed because of an eight-day lawyers' strike in Italy.
Schettino faces charges of multiple manslaughter, causing environmental damage and abandoning the ship, but his defence team claim the blame should be more evenly shared with other crew members as well as the shipping company.
The luxurious Costa Concordia crashed into a rock off Giglio on the night of January 13, 2012 with 4,229 people from 70 countries on board.
The ship veered sharply and keeled over near the shore, sparking a panicky and delayed evacuation hampered by the failure of some lifeboats to deploy.
Hundreds of people who had been sitting down to dinner were forced to jump into the sea to escape, many of them still wearing their formal evening wear.
Survivors described scenes of pandemonium "like the Titanic".
Among those who died were an Italian honeymooner who could not swim, a 71-year-old French man who gave his wife his lifejacket before they leapt into the sea and a Hungarian musician who went back to his cabin to get his violin.
The bodies of two of the victims from that night have never been recovered.
The botched evacuation sparked a bitter confrontation between the coastguard and Schettino, who claimed he had fallen into a lifeboat because the ship was tilting at a 90-degree angle and said he was coordinating the rescue from the shore.
Schettino's lawyers, Domenico and Francesco Pepe, have called 100 witnesses and pledged to show that "no single person was responsible" for the disaster.
They plan to probe the role played by managers at ship owner Costa Crociere, the type of steel used to build the ship, as well as the apparent malfunctioning of sealed doors and back-up generators.
Four other crew members, including the ship's Indonesian helmsman, and a Costa manager have entered plea bargains with short prison sentences, which will be ruled on in a separate hearing on July 20.
Costa earlier admitted limited responsibility as Schettino's employer and was ordered to pay 1.0 million euros ($1.3 million) in a controversial ruling that has excluded it from criminal proceedings.
The prosecution has called 347 witnesses including Domnica Cemortan, a young Moldovan woman who was in Schettino's company at the time of impact and was rumoured to have been having an affair with the medallion-wearing captain.
She and Schettino have both denied the rumours.
Another witness is coast guard official Gregorio De Falco, whose angry phone call to Schettino on the night of the disaster went viral after being leaked.
Tuesday's initial hearing could be immediately postponed to July 17 if Schettino's lawyers decide to adhere to the national strike, a move likely to anger survivors frustrated by the slow pace of Italy's justice system.