Costa Concordia pre-trial starts: Will captain use 'I tripped' defense?

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.

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

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.

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.

He claimed he did not abandon passengers in their hour of need but accidentally “tripped” into a lifeboat which took him to shore, from where he coordinated the evacuation operation, and that he managed to save lives by maneuvering the ship close to shore, allowing passengers and crew to reach dry land.

New audio

A dramatic audio recording of the panic on the bridge of the ship emerged on Monday, provided by Codacons, a consumer association which is supporting some of the Italian passengers in their bid for compensation.

In the moments after the impact, Schettino and his second-in-command, Ciro Ambrosio, issued contradictory orders to the helmsman. The captain shouted “Hard to port” while Ambrosio yelled “Hard to starboard.”

Schettino frantically ordered the crew to close the water-tight compartments deep in the bowels of the ship. A ship’s officer told him the level of the water was rising fast. He asked, “So are we really going down? I don’t understand.”

He told the helmsman to swing the rudder hard to starboard, “otherwise we go on the rocks.”

Despite the rapidly deteriorating situation, an officer made an announcement to passengers, telling them that “everything is under control” and that the vessel is simply undergoing a “technical problem.”

The audio recording, which will be analyzed during the pre-trial hearing, concluded with an officer telling passengers and crew “Attention, attention, abandon the ship.”

Corporation to blame?

The hearing was closed to the press and public but survivors and lawyers were free to speak to the media outside.

Peter Ronai, an American lawyer who is representing 10 survivors, said Schettino was being made a “scapegoat” and that responsibility for the accident rested with the owners of the ship, Costa Cruises, and its American parent company, Carnival Corporation.

“We feel that the fault lies with the corporation,” he said outside Grosseto’s Teatro Moderno, a theater which is being used for the hearing because the town’s court house is too small. “Schettino may have caused the impact but the company had plenty of time to handle the situation and evacuate people in an orderly manner."

“Instead, they told everyone to relax, that it was just a power blackout. Only at the very last minute did they tell people to run for their lives. It was a complete zoo – men pushed aside women and children were shoved aside.”

John Eaves, an American lawyer who represents more than 150 passengers from 10 countries, said he hoped the investigation would lead to sweeping improvements to safety drills, training, and ship design in the cruise industry.

“The ship was top-heavy. It only sat half as deep in the water as the Titanic but it carried more than twice the number of passengers. The captain made a horrible mistake but we need to change safety standards in the whole industry.”

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