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Packed Italian court as captain in Concordia disaster hears evidence

An Italian court will decide if Francesco Schettino, the captain of the capsized Costa Concordia cruise ship, should face a full trial next year for the deaths of 32 people. NBC's Claudio Lavanga reports.

GROSSETO, Italy -- The captain of the Costa Concordia 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 over the disaster.

As dozens of experts, lawyers and prosecutors packed the building, all eyes were on Schettino, who returned to Tuscany for the first time since his arrest to, in his own words, “Face my accusers.”

In the next few days, Schettino, the eight other people accused, and the many survivors and families of victims, will learn if he will face charges over the deaths of 32 people after his ship run aground off Giglio island on Jan. 13.

Schettino is accused of manslaughter, causing the shipwreck and abandoning ship while passengers and crew were still aboard. He denies the accusations and has not been charged. Any trial is unlikely to begin before next year. 

“The sooner we can resolve it, the sooner the victims can get on with their lives, they can put this behind them. ... We are anxious to do that, but not so anxious to compromise on our will to change the industry for better standards,” John Arthur Eaves, Jr., an Alabama-based lawyer representing several American survivors of the disaster, told NBC News.

Monday’s hearing was the first and most important in a preliminary trial, aimed at establishing who should be indicted over the disaster.

Over the next few days experts, who were appointed at an earlier hearing in March, will present their analysis of the data retrieved from the black box, audio recordings and other on-board equipment.

The hearing is off limits to the media, and the only way to learn what is happening inside is through lawyers and witnesses who emerge from the theater during breaks.

Dramatic opening
Schettino himself has become a lightning rod for international disdain for having left the ship before everyone was evacuated.

As befitting a star attraction, the captain arrived Monday at the makeshift courthouse through the back door in a car with darkened windows.

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"Schettino looked like he just walked out of a fashion magazine. He was dressed in a black suit, black tie, and was very tanned. He didn't betray any emotion, and took many notes,” Eaves told NBC.

Even the weather added to the sense of drama.

Codacons via Getty Images

In this handout image, data from the Costa Concordia's black box reveals the moment when Capt. Francesco Schettino said "let's leave the ship" in the moments after the cruise liner collided with rocks in Grosseto, Italy.

on October 15, 2012 in Grosseto, Italy. (Photo by Laura Lezza/Getty Images)

A massive storm, nicknamed Cleopatra by Italian meteorologists, hit Grosseto a couple of hours after the hearing began, dumping rain on members of the media waiting outside.

A group of German survivors said Schettino was seen biting his nails, and another witness claimed to have seen him shaking hands with another survivor.

"We want to look him in the eye to see how he will react to the accusations," said survivor Michael Liessen, 50, who was attending with his wife. 

Schettino is one of nine people facing charges, although eyewitnesses, leaked audio and video recordings, a pre-trial report and even the liner’s owners, Costa Crociere (a subsidiary of Miami-based Carnival), appeared to put the blame squarely on him.

Wider fault?
However, Eaves, the American lawyer, suggested the fault may lie wider.

"It was just said in court that musicians on board had more safety training than other crew members," Eaves told NBC.

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“We are not going to save lives if we don’t change the standards in the whole industry, not only of this particular captain,” he added.

Remo Casilli / Reuters

The Costa Concordia, carrying more than 4,200 passengers, ran aground Jan. 13 off the coast of Italy killing 32 people - including two Americans.

It is alleged Schettino was in command when he steered the gigantic ship too close to Giglio coastline, allegedly to perform a maritime salute to grant a favor to the ship’s head master, who was originally from the island.

The Concordia hit a reef, tearing a 160-ft. gash in her hull, taking in water and eventually running aground yards from the island’s port.

Video taken by passengers at the time showed scenes of chaos and confusion as the Costa Concordia started to list heavily.

In the intervening months, Schettino has sought to restore his reputation and set the record straight by giving his version of events.

His strategy has not met with widespread approval.

An angry member of an Italian consumer association told NBC News it would be raising a formal objection to Schettino’s presence in court.

“We are losing sight of the victims of this tragedy, but they could line the pockets of the shamed captain,” the member said.

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Many questions
Expert evidence will have to address many questions, among them:

Did Schettino make a personal and fatal mistake in taking the ship too close to the island, or should, as he claims, the blame be shared with other crew members?

Six months after the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster, some of the survivors say that they have learned the cruise industry has a "lack of oversight." Hundreds of survivors are challenging the settlements offered to them and calling for an overhaul of the industry.  Rock Center's Harry Smith reports.

Did Schettino voluntarily abandon the ship hours before all passengers were evacuated?

Did he delay the call to abandon the ship, further endangering passengers?

Did he really save hundreds of lives by steering the ship as close as possible to the coast, as he claims, guided by a “divine hand”?

A pre-trial report, leaked to Italian media weeks before the trial, places much of the blame on Schettino.

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The 270-page report, compiled by maritime experts appointed by the court, reveals that the captain abandoned the Costa Concordia hours before the last of the passengers had reached safety and was slow in issuing the order to abandon ship and alerting port authorities.

But the experts -- two admirals and two engineers -- also note that evacuation drills had not been undertaken by all passengers on the ship and not all crew members understood Italian, the operating language of the liner.

“You find a consistent pattern of a lack of discipline on crew training, on the design of the vessel, on the communication problems. They go back to standards that were set up by Carnival in the United States. This captain made a horrible mistake, but we are not going to save lives if we don’t change the standards in the whole industry, not only of this particular captain,” Eaves said.

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An Indonesian helmsman, for instance, failed twice to understand orders, veering to the right instead of the left as he was told by Schettino, who joked he should pay closer attention or “we will go on the rocks,” only minutes before they dram aground.

A local newspaper said Monday the captain’s lawyers told the judge and prosecutors to “consider the position of the helmsman.”

Schettino, they seem to suggest, was not the only one to blame.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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