Captain of wrecked cruise ship on trial in Italy
- Article by: FRANCES D'EMILIO
- Associated Press
- July 9, 2013 - 10:30 AM
GROSSETO, Italy — The crippled Costa Concordia lies on its side off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, a stubborn reminder of the 2012 shipwreck that claimed 32 lives. On Tuesday, the luxury cruise liner's captain went on trial here as the sole defendant in a case that may take months or longer to resolve — making an end to the drama even more elusive.
Francesco Schettino is charged with manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing the shipwreck. He took his place at the defendant table at the edge of the orchestra pit in Grosseto's Teatro Moderno, a 1,000-seat theater that is serving as a more spacious substitute for the courtroom of this Tuscan provincial capital because so many survivors and victims' relatives were expected to attend.
Instead, aside from journalists and a panel of judges, at a table on the stage, the theater was virtually empty. A nationwide, eight-day lawyers' strike had generated wide expectations that Judge Giovanni Puliatti would immediately adjourn the opening hearing. It didn't quite happen that way: Puliatti intoned a nearly hour-long roll call of lawyers' names before calling it a day — setting the next session for July 17.
It was the latest example of Italy's slow-moving justice system. But what has riled survivors even more is the lack of any other defendants in the trial, frustrating hopes of learning why the sophisticated ship struck the jagged reef, and why everyone wasn't safely evacuated.
One of the lawyers representing survivors, Daniele Bocciolini, said what his clients wanted was simple: "We are asking for justice," he told Sky TG24 TV.
Schettino "is the only defendant, but he is not the only one responsible," said Bocciolini. "There is still a need to shed light on what happened."
Court-appointed experts have concluded that the crew and owner Costa Crociere SpA, a unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp., committed blunders and safety breaches that contributed to the disaster off the island's rocky coast.
Five other defendants successfully sought plea bargains, and their hearing will be held in Grosseto on July 20. Their sentences are expected to be much more lenient than the 20 years in prison Schettino might face if convicted.
Prosecutors contend that Schettino steered the ship too close to the island's coastline in a publicity stunt for Costa Crociere. The cruise company denies that version of events.
Survivors described a chaotic and delayed evacuation, with crew allegedly at first downplaying the seriousness of the collision, which caused a gash 70 meters (230-feet) long in the Concordia's side and let seawater rush into the ship.
The wait for justice will be long, with sheer legal logistics dragging the trial out.
Schettino's lawyer, Domenico Pepe, said that some 1,000 witnesses will be called to testify. That phase of the trial alone could take weeks.
Many of the witnesses will be drawn from the 4,200 passengers and crew aboard the ship that rammed the reef on the night of Jan. 13, 2012, rapidly took on water and capsized, leaving many of the lifeboats unable to be lowered into the sea.
Dozens of people had to be plucked to safety by helicopters, while others jumped off the badly tilting ship into the sea and swam to Giglio's rocky shores. Survivors were stunned to see Schettino already on shore when, exhausted, they stepped onto land.
Remains of two of the dead were never found.
For weeks, divers dodged floating mattresses, tableware, chairs and other furnishings of the Concordia in their search of the interior as well as the exposed side of the boat. They plumbed the nearby chilly waters in vain search for the bodies of a middle-aged Italian woman, whose family said she was an excellent swimmer, and of an Indian man who worked as a waiter aboard.
Schettino, wearing sunglasses and slipping on a blue jacket over his white shirt, made no comments as he hurried into a back entrance of the theater. On his way out, before darting into a car, he told reporters: "We'll see you on the 17th," when trial is set to resume.
Schettino has depicted himself as a scapegoat. Far from being a coward, he insists, he was a hero for steering the ship closer to Giglio's port after the collision — a maneuver he claimed helped save countless lives by making rescue easier.
The public's idea of him contrasts sharply. It is largely shaped by an oft-broadcast recording of a phone conversation between Schettino and an exasperated Italian coast guard official who repeatedly ordered the captain to scramble back aboard the ship to direct the evacuation.
Schettino has claimed he had to abandon the capsizing boat while people were still aboard before it became impossible to launch any more lifeboats and he planned to direct the rest of the evacuation from shore. He also has claimed that in the darkness he didn't see a ladder he could have used to climb back aboard.
The Concordia's wreck blights the seascape for yet another summer in an otherwise pristine part of the Tuscan archipelago, confounding experts' initial predictions that the ship would have been removed by spring 2013.
On Giglio, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) southwest of Grosseto, residents depend on tourism and fishing for their livelihoods. The wreckage mars the panorama from the island's harbor, where locals and tourists sip drinks and mingle in the evening.
Salvage experts had originally predicted the ship could be tipped upright in an ambitious operation so towing could begin in spring of this year. But that timetable has slipped away.
The removal project involves some 400 workers representing 18 nationalities, including engineers and divers. This week, crews were busy securing some of the caissons being attached to one side of the crippled ship, which, the planners hope, will help the wreckage stay afloat when eventually righted so it can be towed to the mainland.
Islanders are impatient for the removal of the eyesore.
"We want our island back as it was," Giglio's mayor, Sergio Ortelli, told The Associated Press on Monday as he looked at the blue cove where he used to swim. Now, towering cranes and platforms of the removal team loom over the shipwreck.
Ortelli said authorities told the islanders the operation will begin in September to bring the wrecked ship upright again.
The island is still awaiting compensation for damages caused by the shipwreck, he said. "Our image was internationally damaged, and tourism figures have dropped off noticeably," the mayor said.
Most haunting is the human cost of the Concordia's fateful collision.
"The saddest thing is to pass by on the ferry and think that two bodies are still there, or will never be found," said tourist Patrizia Giovanelli.
Frances D'Emilio reported from Rome
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