Hearing begins for Costa Concordia disaster

Indictment hearings against six suspects in the Costa Concordia luxury liner disaster began in Italy on Monday, with local authorities at the site of the shipwreck requesting compensation of more than €80 million ($105 million).

Hearing begins for Costa Concordia disaster
Costa Concordia captain Francesco Schettino leaves court on Monday. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The main suspect is captain Francesco Schettino, who is accused of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, misinforming the coast guard after the crash and abandoning the ship during the rescue.

A sombre-looking Schettino, who usually lives on probation in his home town of Meta on the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy, was present at the hearing with special permission from the judge.

Thirty-two people lost their lives – among them a five-year-old girl – when the giant luxury liner crashed into an Italian island on the night of January 13th, 2012 during a Mediterranean cruise.

Lawyers for the island of Giglio, where the ship still lies, said the local council had asked to be a plaintiff in the case and was seeking compensation "in excess of 80 million."

Among around 200 parties who have requested to be plaintiffs in the pre-trial hearings are ship operator Costa Crociere and dozens of survivors.

One group of passengers, which has named itself "Justice for the Concordia", is asking for compensation of 500,000 per survivor.

"My clients would like to try and understand what really happened, why it happened and whose fault it is," said Massimiliano Valcada, a lawyer for the family of one of the French victims.

"This will not change what happened that terrible night but they need to know the truth – why their loved one died that night," he said.

Among the four crew members other than Schettino who are accused by prosecutors is the ship's Indonesian helmsman Jacob Rusli Bin, suspected of contributing to the tragedy by misunderstanding a vital command moments before the crash.

Rusli Bin's whereabouts are not known but he has been assigned a lawyer and the accusations against him will be heard in absentia.

The sixth accused is Roberto Ferrarini, the head of Costa's crisis unit who is also suspected of failing to keep the coast guard adequately informed and thereby delaying the rescue.

All six are accused of manslaughter.

Schettino has denied intentionally abandoning ship while passengers still had to be evacuated, telling investigators that he fell off the liner when it tilted at a near-90 degree angle.

The Costa Concordia crashed at high speed into Giglio with 4,229 people from 70 countries on board as Schettino attempted a risky "salute" manoeuvre to the island.

After the impact with a group of offshore rocks, the giant liner then veered sharply and keeled over in shallow water near the shore.

Most of the passengers and crew were evacuated with the ship's lifeboats but hundreds had to jump into the sea and swim ashore in the dark.

The court has scheduled 40 pre-trial hearings lasting into July before it rules on whether a trial should go ahead and when it will take place.

The case is being heard in Grosseto, the city nearest to Giglio where an unprecedented salvage operation is underway to right the cruise ship, refloat it and tow it away.

Dozens of survivors have civil lawsuits against Costa Crociere, the biggest operator in Europe and a subsidiary of the US-based giant Carnival Corp.

Most of the survivors who did not suffer injuries or lose loved ones have accepted compensation from Costa of around 11,000 euros ($14,000) each.

The company negotiated a controversial plea bargain with the court in the criminal case last week in which it accepted limited responsibility as the employer of the suspects and was ordered to pay a €1 million euro fine.

"This company has disregarded safety for the sake of its passengers, to just increase its profits. The industry must change," said John Artur Eaves, a US lawyer representing around 150 survivors.

Some lawyers allege that the company had poorly-trained personnel and malfunctioning equipment on board and caused delays in the evacuation – all accusations denied by Costa Crociere.

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Costa Concordia wreck to be raised in September

The wreck of the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship which crashed into the Tuscan island of Giglio in January 2012 killing 32, will finally be raised up next month, the salvage coordinator said on Friday.

Costa Concordia wreck to be raised in September
32 people died in the Costa Concordia disaster in January 2012. Photo: AFP

The wreck of the cruise liner currently lies keeled over off the Tuscan island of Giglio over a year after it crashed with 4,229 people from 70 countries on board, claiming 32 lives.

"If things go as we are expecting. I think September will be the month of the rotation," prefect Franco Gabrielli told Italian news channel SkyTG24, declining to give a precise date.

The raising of the Concordia had been programmed for September 2012 but was then delayed to May 2013 and then put off again because of technical difficulties.

The news comes on the day the Italian environmental organization Legambiente staged a protest in front of the wreck. Holding 12-metre-long banners reading "581 days and the Concordia is still here", protesters called for the removal of the wreck which the group described as an environmental and economic disaster.   

"The inhabitants and everyone who loves the island of Giglio are waiting for concrete acts to stop this tragedy from also becoming an environmental and economic disaster," Legambiente's National President Vittorio Cogliati Dezza told the television channel TG1. 

The planned salvage operation will be the biggest ever attempted for a passenger ship.

The plan is initially to rotate the 114,500-ton vessel, then attach flotation tanks to the side that is currently under water like the ones already welded to its exposed side.

The tanks will then be emptied of water to act as flotation devices before the ship is towed away to be scrapped in a port that is yet to be determined.

Salvage operators say the rotation has to occur in September at the latest because otherwise there would be a risk of bad weather later in the year.

Giglio mayor Sergio Ortelli said the operation was in its "final phase", adding that he was confident the operation the island return to "calm and normality".

Ortelli said tourist numbers on the island were down 15 percent this season compared to before the crash but said this was an improvement from last summer when arrivals were down 30 percent.