GROSSETO, Italy — Europe's top cruise operator came under pressure on Monday at pre-trial hearings into the Costa Concordia disaster as captain Francesco Schettino faced survivors for the first time.
Dozens of lawyers, experts and survivors attended the closed-door hearings in Grosseto in central Italy -- the nearest city to the scene of the January 13 capsize of the luxury liner on Giglio island which claimed 32 lives.
"We came to see Schettino. We want to look him in the eye and see how he reacts to the accusations," Michael Lissem, a 50-year-old from Germany who was a passenger on the luxury liner along with his wife Angelika, told AFP.
The giant ship -- more than twice as heavy as the Titanic -- had 4,229 people on board when it struck an offshore reef near Giglio, tearing a massive gash in its hull, just as many passengers were settling down for dinner.
The vessel took on water and keeled over, sparking a panicky evacuation.
"Schettino may have been in command but the responsibilities lie elsewhere," said Ernesto Carusotti, an Italian survivor.
"He'll have to answer for the error he made, that's sure. But there are other things that have come out from the black box," he said.
Luciano Castro, another passenger, said he shook Schettino's hand.
"I told him I hoped the whole truth will come out and he said he was sure it would. He was very tense and quite defensive," he said.
Dozens of survivors are suing ship owner Costa Crociere and its US parent company Carnival Corporation for hundreds of millions of dollars.
The court hearings in Grosseto could last several days. No date has yet been set for the trial, which is likely to be held only next year.
-- 'An illicit initiative' --
"We don't hold Schettino responsible, we feel it is the corporation's fault. They had plenty of time to evacuate," said Peter Ronai, a lawyer representing nine Hungarian survivors and the family of a violinist who died.
"They are trying to make Schettino a scapegoat," he added.
Costa Crociere has defended itself, with its lawyer Marco De Luca denying reports that equipment on board had malfunctioned.
The lawyer also said the "salute" manoeuvre the ship was performing near the shore was "an illicit initiative taken by the captain".
Costa Crociere earlier said that Schettino's communications with the coast guard and the company were "not timely, partial and confused".
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 claims he fell onto a lifeboat when the ship keeled over.
The captain has not been formally charged but is accused of manslaughter.
A total of 10 people are under investigation, including Schettino himself and six other crew members.
Roberto Ferrarini, head of Costa Crociere's crisis unit, is also being investigated along with two other managers.
Italian consumer group Codacons, which has launched a class action lawsuit, said its own research showed key equipment had malfunctioned, including the black box, sealed doors in the engine room and a sonar to measure depth.
It said the emergency generator, which would have supplied energy after the impact to the rudder, the sealed doors and the lifts where it said several people were found dead, failed to work.
"The failings are what caused the deaths of the 32 victims, not Schettino, whose accident was minor," Codacons lawyer Giuliano Leuzzi said.
Codacons released recordings from the bridge that revealed chaos and misunderstandings between the captain and his crew.
Italian lawyer Pier Mario Moro, who represents several passengers, said the evidence examined in court "pointed to Schettino as being responsible for a series of alarms given late. Every action he took was delayed".
But Captain Fedrik Wijnen, general secretary of the Confederation of European Shipmasters' Associations, said Schettino was "a very capable seafarer".
"The biggest problem is not his seamanship but his personality. He comes across as a playboy, but he's not," he said outside the Tuscan court.
"He didn't desert the ship, he went ashore and organised the lifeboats. Being a captain doesn't mean you have to commit suicide," he said, adding that blame also lay with other officers who had failed to realise the danger.
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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