Italian judge holds first hearing on cruise disaster

Prosecutors to decide if captain will stand trial

Luca Bruno/Associated Press
The first hearing of the criminal investigation into the Costa Concordia’s shipwreck was held in a Grosseto, Italy, theater yesterday because the courthouse couldn’t contain the crowd.

GROSSETO, Italy - The first hearing of the criminal investigation into the Costa Concordia’s shipwreck was held in a theater yesterday instead of a courthouse because of high demand, with angry survivors seeking compensation, justice, and the truth.

The judge at the hearing assigned four experts to analyze the cruise ship’s data recorder and ordered them to report their findings in July, confirming predictions by prosecutor Francesco Verusio that examination of the data, as well as of conversations involving officers on the ship’s bridge, could take months.

Prosecutors must decide whether to seek a trial against the captain, other top officers, and officials of Italian cruise company Costa Crociere SPA, which is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp. Crucial to their decision could be what the experts determine are such details as the Concordia’s speed when it slammed into a reef the night of Jan. 13 off Giglio island, its exact route, and what commands were given by whom and when.

Participants acknowledged that the search for truth and justice will be a long one.

“Today is just the beginning,’’ said Francesco Compagna, a lawyer for some passengers and an injured Russian crew member, Irina Nazarova. “It is the first day. We don’t expect quick things but we think that the investigation must follow in all the directions.’’

The shipwreck killed 25 people, and seven others are missing and presumed dead. Captain Francesco Schettino is accused of abandoning ship while many of the 4,200 passengers and crew were still aboard during a confused evacuation.

Prosecutors say the captain steered the ship too close to the island to show off the vessel to islanders in a publicity stunt.

Survivor Sergio Ammarota, among those who entered the hearing, said he wanted to know “exactly how it [the crash] happened and why the captain . . . could have carried out such a maneuver.’’

Compagna added that lawyers are trying to determine “that it was not the first time that the Costa boats used to go very close to the island.’’

Schettino has claimed that the reef, which appears on many tourist maps, was not on his navigational charts. Schettino is also accused of abandoning ship while many passengers and crew were still aboard. Some of them jumped into the water and swam to shore after the Concordia’s tilt made it impossible to lower all the life boats.

Costa Crociere has distanced itself from Schettino, contending that he made an “unauthorized’’ maneuver that took him perilously too close to the island. It has said that only once, in August, was the cruise ship allowed to sail close to Giglio, because of a special occasion on the island.

A lawyer for Schettino - who is accused of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, and abandoning ship - slipped into the theater through a back door. Schettino, who is under house arrest in his home near Naples, denies wrongdoing and did not attend the hearing.

Schettino’s lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, later said the captain expects that the black box exam will “further confirm what he already told investigators.’’

Italian law allows injured parties to attach civil suits to criminal cases, and at least some of the survivors or lawyers or relatives of the victims who came to the hearing are pressing requests for compensation.