July 9, 2013

Captain of wrecked cruise ship on trial in Italy

By Frances D'Emilio and Paolo Santalucia / The Associated Press

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.

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The Costa Concordia cruise ship lies on its side in the waters of the Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, on Monday. The luxury cruise ship ran aground off the coast of Tuscany on Jan 13, 2012, sending water pouring in through a 160-foot gash in the hull and forcing the evacuation of some 4,200 people from the listing vessel.

AP

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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