An Italian court is deciding whether the captain and some crew of the Costa Concordia cruise ship will face trial for the 2012 disaster off Tuscany that killed 32 people.
Prosecutors want Francesco Schettino to stand trial for manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship before all the 4,200 passengers and crew had been evacuated. They want four other crew and a Costa manager on land to face charges of having botched the emergency.
Schettino did not comment as he arrived for the preliminary, closed-door hearing in the Tuscan city of Grosseto, where a theatre has been converted into a court to accommodate all the civil parties to the case.
A decision on the indictment was not expected immediately, lawyers said, as the session was devoted to technical matters that also involved the hundreds of passengers seeking damages due to their injuries, trauma and losses.
Schettino ordered the ship taken off course on January 13, 2012, to bring it closer to the island of Giglio as a favour to friends. But it hit a reef off the island, leaving a 230-foot gash in the hull and causing the liner to capsize. Passengers recounted a harrowing and delayed evacuation: by the time Schettino ordered them to evacuate, the ship was listing so far to one side that many lifeboats could not be lowered.
Schettino has defended his actions, saying he saved lives by bringing the ship closer to port and that the reef was not on his charts.
His first officer on duty on the bridge at the time of the collision, Ciro Ambrosino, is one of the four crew accused. His lawyer Salvatore Catalano, said his client was "shocked and still suffering" from what happened.
"But from the point of view of responsibility, I can absolutely exclude that Ciro Ambrosio is responsible," Mr Catalano said.
Lawyers representing hundreds of victims were on hand for the hearing to make the case for compensation from Costa Crociere well beyond what the company, a division of Miami-based Carnival, offered in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Two weeks after the capsizing, Costa offered passengers 11,000 euros plus reimbursement for the costs of their cruises and extra travel expenses.
"As far as we know, the latest negotiations reached 27,000 euros, as a last offer from Costa," said Massimiliano Gabrieli, who is representing several dozen Italian passengers who suffered mostly post-traumatic stress and slight injuries. "We will ask for €1 million of compensation for each passenger."
Costa lawyer Marco De Luca said the request was ridiculous. "Why not €10 million? That wouldn't be bad," he said sarcastically as he arrived for the hearing. "There would be a run to get on board ships hoping for an accident."
Last week, a judge fined Costa a million euros in administrative sanctions under a plea bargain. Under Italian law, companies can face such sanctions when their employees commit crimes.
The Concordia remains on its side, grounded off Giglio's port. Officials are preparing the ship to be rolled upright and towed from the rocks to a port to be dismantled - an operation on a scale that has never before been attempted.
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