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Costa Concordia pre-trial starts: Will captain use 'I tripped' defense? (+video)

Capt. Francesco Schettino is expected to be charged with abandoning ship when the cruiseliner ran aground in January. He said at the time he tripped into the lifeboat.

By Correspondent / October 15, 2012

A view of the partially sunk Costa Concordia wreckage next to Giglio Island, Italy, on October 14, 2012.

Gregorio Borgia/AP

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Grosseto, Italy

The captain of the Costa Concordia cruise ship appeared in an Italian court on Monday at the start of a key hearing at which he is expected to be put on trial for abandoning the ship and causing the deaths of 32 people.

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A Reuters report on the captain of the 'Costa Concordia' making an appearance for a pre-trial hearing in Italy.

Capt. Francesco Schettino was in charge of the 1,000-foot-long luxury cruise ship when it slammed into rocks off the Mediterranean island of Giglio on the night of Jan. 13 this year. A chaotic, panic-stricken evacuation ensued in the darkness in which more than 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew had to scramble for safety, most taking to lifeboats but some leaping into the icy cold water.

At this week’s pre-trial hearing, a court in the Tuscan town of Grosseto, where the investigation is taking place, will debate evidence taken from the ship’s "black box" data recorder, which sheds light on how the disaster unfolded. An investigating judge will then decide whether to charge Captain Schettino with abandoning ship – contravening the laws of the sea – and multiple counts of manslaughter.

As lawyers and maritime experts debated the contents of the black box, passengers recounted the terror they experienced as the ship listed violently and water flooded into its engine rooms.

“I remember people fleeing in terror and panic,” said Luciano Castro, a public relations executive who was on holiday on the ship. “Then the long wait without any information, the extreme difficulty of getting off the boat and the feeling that we had been abandoned. We only escaped by chance, or perhaps by a miracle. Others were not so lucky.”

On the defense

Schettino, who became a figure of ridicule and disdain for many Italians in the wake of the tragedy, faces serious accusations of negligence and abdication of duty.

He is accused of steering the giant cruise ship far too close to Giglio in order to perform a “salute” to a retired ship’s captain and as a favor to a member of the crew whose family came from the island.

When the cruise liner smashed into a rocky shoal, ripping a huge gash in its hull, the captain allegedly downplayed the severity of the incident, both to his superiors in Costa Cruises, the Genoa-based owner of the ship, and to the 3,200 passengers.

He allegedly procrastinated over the decision to abandon ship, costing more than an hour of valuable time, and then jumped into a lifeboat while terrified holidaymakers were still on board.

Recorded conversations between the Italian Coast Guard and Schettino show him refusing an express order to get back on the boat and coordinate the evacuation.

In the face of the accusations, the captain has mounted a spirited defense. He has claimed he was put under enormous pressure by Costa Cruises to perform the sail-by in order to impress passengers. He also said the rocky reef into which the ship crashed was not marked on his nautical charts and that his engineers and officers did not alert him to the true extent of the catastrophe.

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