GROSSETO, Italy: Europe’s top cruise operator came under pressure on Monday at pre-trial hearings into the Costa Concordia disaster as captain Francesco Schettino faced survivors for the first time.
Hundreds of people including lawyers and survivors attended the closed-door hearings in Grosseto in central Italy — the nearest city to the scene of the January 13 capsize of the luxury liner on Giglio island which claimed 32 lives.
“We came to see Schettino. We want to look him in the eye and see how he reacts to the accusations,” Michael Lissem, a 50-year-old from Germany who was a passenger on the luxury liner along with his wife Angelika, told AFP.
The giant ship — more than twice as heavy as the Titanic — had 4,229 people on board when it struck an offshore reef near Giglio, tearing a massive gash in its hull, just as many passengers were settling down for dinner.
The vessel quickly took on water, veered sharply and keeled over a few dozen metres from the shore, sparking a panicky night-time evacuation which was hampered because lifeboats on one side of the ship could not be lowered.
Passengers and crew from dozens of countries were on board the Mediterranean cruise ship, including particularly large contingents of Italian, French and German cruise-goers, as well as staff from India, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Ernesto Carusotti, an Italian survivor, said: “We were abandoned when the ship hit the rock. I didn’t see any crew members helping, we actually helped people in wheel chairs get up and down the stairs to get to the lifeboats.
“Schettino may have been in command but the responsibilities lie elsewhere. He’ll have to answer for the error he made, that’s sure. But there are other things that have come out from the black box.”
Dozens of survivors are suing ship owner Costa Crociere and its US parent company Carnival Corporation for hundreds of millions of dollars.
No date has yet been set for the trial which is likely to be held next year.
The court hearings in Grosseto, which could last several days, are being held in a theatre to accommodate the large numbers of people present.
“We don’t hold Schettino responsible, we feel it is the corporation’s fault. They had plenty of time to evacuate,” said Peter Ronai, a lawyer representing nine Hungarian survivors and the family of a violinist who died.
“They are trying to make Schettino a scapegoat,” he added.
US lawyer John Arthur Eaves told reporters: “If Carnival had been overseeing and setting proper standards on board ship, if they had enforced regulations, if they had kept up standards this would never have happened.”
“We have to make sure these companies change their attitudes,” he said.
Costa Crociere has said that in the event of an accident, the obligation to inform the authorities is the captain’s. It has also said that Schettino’s communications were “on the whole not timely, partial and confused.”
Schettino, who has been dubbed “Captain Coward” and “Italy’s most hated man” in the press, is also accused of abandoning ship before its evacuation was complete. He claims he fell onto a lifeboat when the ship keeled over.
The captain has not been formally charged but is accused of manslaughter.
A total of 10 people are formally under investigation, including Schettino himself, the ship’s Indonesian helmsman and five other crew members.
Roberto Ferrarini, head of Costa Crociere’s crisis unit, is also being investigated along with two other managers from the US-owned cruise giant.
Italian consumer group Codacons, which has launched a class action lawsuit said its own research showed key equipment had malfunctioned, including the black box, sealed doors in the engine room and a sonar to measure depth.
“The experts have failed to address a series of questions we’ve posed, including why 32 people died and whether any of them could have been saved,” Professor Bruno Neri, an expert working with Codacons, told reporters.
Neri called for an investigation into why the emergency generator failed to work, saying that it would have supplied energy after the impact to the rudder, the sealed doors and the lifts where he said several people were found dead.
The ghostly wreck of the 114,500-ton liner is still beached on its side just a few dozen metres from the shore of Giglio. Salvage crews are working to stabilise and refloat the hulk, which should be removed by spring 2013.