Cruise ship disaster pre-trial hearings begin in Italy


GROSSETO, Italy: The deadly Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster returned to court in Italy on Monday with the start of a long series of indictment hearings against six suspects including captain Francesco Schettino.

Thirty-two people lost their lives, including a five-year-old Italian girl, when the giant luxury liner crashed into an Italian island on the night of January 13, 2012.

The chief suspect is Schettino who is accused of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, misinforming coast guards during the rescue operation and abandoning the ship.

He was present at Monday’s hearing.

Among the four other crew members accused by prosecutors is the ship’s Indonesian helmsman Jacob Rusli Bin, suspected of contributing to the tragedy by misunderstanding a vital command moments before the crash.

Rusli Bin’s whereabouts are not known but he has been assigned a lawyer and the accusations against him will be heard in absentia.

The sixth accused is Roberto Ferrarini, the head of ship owner Costa Crociere’s crisis unit who is also suspected of failing to keep the coast guard adequately informed and therefore delaying the rescue.

Costa Concordia captain Francesco Schettino arrives on April 15, 2013 in Grossetto, Italy

All six are accused of manslaughter.

Schettino has denied abandoning ship while passengers still had to be evacuated, telling investigators that he fell off the liner when it tilted at a near-90 degree angle.

The Costa Concordia crashed at high speed into the island of Giglio with 4,229 people from 70 countries on board as Schettino attempted a risky “salute” manoeuvre to the island.

The giant liner veered sharply and then keeled over in shallow water.

Most of the passengers and crew were evacuated with the ship’s lifeboats but hundreds had to jump into the sea and swim ashore in the dark.

The court has scheduled 40 pre-trial hearings lasting into July before it rules on whether a trial should go ahead and when it will take place.

Survivors are allowed to attend the hearings, where prosecutors and defence lawyers will tackle some of the key issues in the expected trial.

The case is being heard in Grosseto, the city nearest to the site of the tragedy where the ship still lies on its side as an unprecedented salvage operation prepares to right it, refloat it and tow it away.

Dozens of survivors in civil courts are suing Costa Crociere, the biggest cruise operator in Europe and a subsidiary of the US-based giant Carnival Corp.

Most of the survivors who did not suffer injuries or lose loved ones have accepted compensation from Costa of around 11,000 euros ($14,000) each.

In terms of criminal proceedings, the company negotiated a controversial plea bargain with the court last week in which it accepted some responsibility as the employer of the suspects and paid a one million euro fine.

Lawyers working for survivors have issued a joint plea for prosecutors to investigate the boards of Costa Crociere and Carnival, which is the world’s biggest cruise company and is registered in Florida.

Relatives of a victim look at the Costa Corncordia cruise ship from the Italian island of Giglio on January 13, 2013

“The idea is that prosecutors in Grosseto should widen their investigation to the companies for their role in the crimes that the current suspects are accused of,” said Cesare Bulgheroni, one of the lawyers taking part in the protest.

Bulgheroni alleged that the company had poorly-trained personnel on board and delayed the evacuation of the ship — all accusations that have been denied by Costa Crociere.

Codacons, a consumer association which is suing Costa Crociere on behalf of some survivors, has published a report that showed key equipment on board apparently malfunctioned including its sealed doors and lifts.

Bruno Neri, a professor called by Codacons to carry out the technical analysis, said: “Schettino has been turned into a scapegoat”.