- Associated Press - Monday, October 15, 2012

GROSSETO, Italy — The captain of the cruise ship that crashed into an Italian reef appeared in court Monday to hear the evidence against him, while hundreds of passengers who survived the deadly shipwreck and the families of those who died in it showed up just “to look him in the eye.”

The case of Francesco Schettino, 51, was of such enormous interest that a theater had to be turned into a courtroom in the Tuscan city of Grosseto to accommodate all those who had a legitimate claim to be at the closed-door hearing.

Wearing dark glasses and a suit, Capt. Schettino used a back entrance to slip into the theater, making no comment to reporters outside.

Lawyers said he listened intently to the proceedings inside, where his attorneys raised some objections to the evidence being submitted.

Thirty-two people died after Capt. Schettino, in a stunt, took his Costa Concordia cruise ship off course and brought it close to the Tuscan island of Giglio on the night of Jan 13. The ship ran aground and capsized.

Capt. Schettino then became a lightning rod for international disdain for having left the ship before everyone was evacuated.

Hearings this week will help decide whether the judge will order a trial for Capt. Schettino, who is accused of manslaughter, causing the shipwreck and abandoning ship while passengers and crew were still aboard.

He denies the accusations and hasn’t been charged. Any trial is unlikely to begin before next year.

More than 1,000 survivors, victims’ relatives and their lawyers attended the hearing on the evidence against Capt. Schettino and eight others accused in the shipwreck, including crew members and officials from Concordia owner Costa Crociere SpA.

“We want to look him in the eye to see how he will react to the accusations,” said German survivor Michael Liessen, 50, who attended Monday’s hearing along with his wife.

A key question is how much of the blame should Capt. Schettino himself bear, and how much responsibility for the disaster lies with his crew and employer, Costa Crociere, a division of the Miami-based Carnival Corp.

Last month, court-appointed experts delivered a 270-page report of what went wrong that night based on an analysis of data recorders, ship communications equipment, testimony and other evidence.

The experts, who included two admirals and two engineers, laid most of the blame for the collision with the reef and the botched evacuation on Capt. Schettino.

But they also noted that not all crew members understood Italian, not all had current safety and evacuation certifications, and not all passengers had the chance to participate in evacuation drills.

While the experts’ findings heavily faulted Capt. Schettino and some of the other crew, lawyers for some survivors and families of the victims are seeking to point blame at the corporate level, alleging negligence.

Costa Crociere has denied that it was negligent, and has distanced itself from Capt. Schettino, firing him in July although he is fighting to get his job back.

Passengers described a confused and delayed evacuation, with many of the lifeboats stuck and unable to be lowered because the boat was listing too far to one side.

Some of the 4,200 people aboard jumped into the Mediterranean and swam to Giglio, while others had to be plucked from the ship by rescue helicopters hours after the collision.