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‘Captain Coward’ faces survivors for first time

Italy begins black box hearings into Costa Concordia, the liner that capsized nine months ago, as new doubts about Capt. Francesco Schettino in his hometown start creeping in

Europe’s top cruise operator came under pressure yesterday at pre-trial hearings into the Costa Concordia disaster as captain Francesco Schettino faced survivors for the first time.

Hundreds of people including lawyers and survivors were also present to hear recordings from the black box at the hearings taking place in Grosseto, near the scene of the crash on Giglio Island which claimd 32 lives.

“We came to see Schettino. We want to look him in the eye and see how he reacts to the accusations,” said Michael Lissem, a 50-year-old from Germany who was a passenger on the luxury liner along with his wife Angelika.

“I don’t know if the Italian justice system can be trusted but I hope so.”

The giant ship – more than twice as heavy as the Titanic – had 4,229 people on board when it struck an offshore reef near the Tuscan island of Giglio on the evening of January 13, tearing a massive gash in its hull.

The vessel quickly took on water, veered sharply and keeled over just a few dozen metres from the shore, sparking a panicky night-time evacuation which was hampered because lifeboats on one side of the ship could not be lowered.

Passengers and crew from dozens of countries were on board the Mediterranean cruise, including particularly large contingents of Italian, French and German cruise-goers, as well as staff from India, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Dozens of survivors are suing ship owner Costa Crociere and its US parent company Carnival Corporation for hundreds of millions of dollars.

No date has yet been set for the trial which is likely to be held next year.

The court hearings in Grosseto, which could last several days, are being held in a theatre to accommodate the large numbers of people present. “This is not a time to assign responsibilities but to find out the truth, which is no small thing,” said Marco de Luca, a lawyer for Costa Crociere.

The hearings will focus in particular on the moments before the impact as the ship veered towards the island in a risky ‘salute’ manoeuvre.

They will also look at the orders Schettino gave after the crash and the contacts he had with the coast guard and with his company in an attempt to determine why the order for everyone to abandon the ship came so late.

Schettino, who has been dubbed “Captain Coward” and “Italy’s most hated man” in the press, is also accused of abandoning ship before its evacuation was complete. He has claimed he fell onto a lifeboat when the ship keeled over.

A total of 10 people are formally under investigation, including Schettino himself, the ship’s Indonesian helmsman and five other crew members.

Roberto Ferrarini, head of Costa Crociere’s crisis unit, is also being investigated along with two other managers from Europe’s top cruise operator.

The captain has not been formally charged but is accused of manslaughter.

In an interview in July, Schettino blamed his fellow crew members, saying he had been distracted but someone on the bridge should have spotted the reef.

He said he did not “feel like I committed a crime” but asked forgiveness.

Italian consumer group Codacons, which has launched a class-action lawsuit, said its own research also showed key equipment had malfunctioned including the black box, sealed doors in the engine room and a sonar to measure depth.

“The experts have failed to address a series of questions we’ve posed, including why 32 people died and whether any of them could have been saved,” Bruno Neri, an expert working with Codacons, told reporters.

Neri called for an investigation into why the emergency generator failed to work, saying that it would have supplied energy after the impact to the rudder, the sealed doors and the lifts where he said several people were found dead.

The ghostly wreck of the 114,500-ton liner is still beached on its side just a few dozen metres from the shore of Giglio.

Salvage crews are working to stabilise and refloat the hulk, which should be removed by spring 2013.

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