Cruise ship captain meets survivors in Italy

Francesco Schettino apologises at hearing to decide if he should face full trial for accident that left 32 people dead.

The captain blamed for the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise liner off the Italian coast in January that killed 32 people, has met survivors and apologised at a hearing to decide if he should face a full trial.

Francesco Schettino appeared relaxed at the hearing, in a theatre in the central town of Grosseto, on Monday and spoke often to his legal team, the lawyer representing 80 US survivors and family members said.

The 114,500 tonne luxury cruise ship capsized on January 13 after approaching the Tuscan island of Giglio to perform a manoeuvre close to the shore known as a salute.

It struck a rock which tore a gash in its hull.

Schettino has admitted he made mistakes but has accused the company of mishandling the response.

He said last week he was suing Costa Cruises, a unit of Carnival Corp, for unfair dismissal following the accident.

Held up to ridicule in Italy and abroad since the disaster, Schettino faces charges of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship during a chaotic night-time evacuation of 4,200 passengers and crew.

Captain ’embarrassed’

Two bodies have still not been recovered. The Costa Concordia is still sitting half-submerged on a rocky shelf off the island.

It was the first such hearing Schettino had attended.

Luciano Castro, an Italian survivor, said Schettino appeared “embarrassed” when they spoke briefly.

“The only thing he said was when I told him that I hope that the truth will soon be established, he said, ‘yes, it needs to be established soon’,” Castro said.

Two German survivors who attended the hearing said Schettino had shaken their hands and said he was sorry.

Lawyers representing the victims’ families said they wanted to look beyond Schettino.

Crews will try to turn the vessel upright before towing it

“The reason these people died is not because of Captain Schettino, the reason these people died is because of the corporation, the negligence in their practices and safety procedures. There was no reason for anyone to die,” Peter Ronai, a lawyer for the victims’ families, said.

Schettino did not speak during Monday morning’s hearing but his lawyers said he accepted blame for the accident and wanted the full truth to be established.

“The captain is doing what is in his right to do, he is conducting his defence,”  Francesco Pepe, Schettino’s lawyer, said outside the closed-door hearing.

“It is in his interest that the truth comes out and it is a question of respect, not just for his rights but also the rights of the survivors,” he said.

Eight other officers and executives of Costa Cruises , the ship’s owner, are also being investigated for their roles in the accident.

The hearings will include the presentation of data taken from the ship’s “black box” and an analysis of the accident by a panel of experts.

Castro, who was aboard the ship when it capsized, said: “What I would say to Captain Schettino is first to tell the truth and second to remember when he speaks that there are people looking at him who are still missing loved ones, people who will never be found because of what happened.”

Salvage operation

Even before Monday’s hearing, a $300m salvage effort got under way to remove the wreck of the Costa Concordia from the Tyrrhenian Sea.

The world’s largest salvage operation will see crews try to turn the vessel upright so that it can be towed away.

Currently, the vessel is being anchored to the sea bed in an effort to keep it from slipping in bad weather.

Concrete platforms larger than a football field will be constructed under water for the Costa Concordia to roll onto.

The manoeuvre itself should take six hours of effort, but the construction and preparation will require seven months work.

The ship, one of the biggest passenger vessels ever to be wrecked, foundered after striking a rock just as dinner was being served on the evening of January 13. It quickly rolled on its side, revealing a long gouge below the waterline.

Most of the passengers and crew survived, despite hours of chaos as some were rescued from the ship and others boarded lifeboats or swam to shore.

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