Strike hits cruise captain's trial
The trial of the captain of the wrecked Costa Concordia cruise liner has opened and been adjourned in Tuscany, in a theatre converted into a courtroom to accommodate all the survivors and relatives of the 32 victims who want justice over the 2012 tragedy.
The sole defendant, Francesco Schettino slipped in through a back door as he arrived for his trial on charges of multiple manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing the shipwreck near the tiny island of Giglio. His lawyer, Domenico Pepe, said that, as expected, the judge was postponing the hearing in Grosseto due to an eight-day nationwide lawyers' strike.
Mr Pepe said some 1,000 witnesses are expected to eventually give evidence. Many of them are expected to be from among the 4,200 passengers and crew on board the ship which struck a jagged reef off Giglio, took on water and capsized. Schettino, who has denied wrongdoing, could face up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted.
The wreck of the ship lies on its side and half-submerged off Giglio, blighting the seascape for another summer in an otherwise pristine part of the Mediterranean, a daily reminder of the slow progress Italian authorities have made in handling the aftermath of the disaster.
The remains of two of the 32 dead have yet to be found. The timetable to salvage it has stretched on. Only now is anyone facing trial for the catastrophe - and even that process is expected to be immediately delayed.
Though court-appointed experts concluded that the crew and owner Costa Crociere SpA, a unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp, committed blunders and safety breaches which contributed to the tragedy off the island's rocky coast, only Captain Schettino has been ordered to stand trial.
Prosecutors contend that on the night of January 13 2012, he steered the ship too close to the island's coastline in a publicity stunt for Costa Crociere and accidentally rammed the jagged reef. The cruise company denies that scenario. Survivors described a chaotic and delayed evacuation, with crew allegedly playing down the seriousness of the collision, which caused a 230ft (70m) gash in the Concordia's side and let seawater rush into the ship.
Schettino has protested his innocence, insisting that his skilful steering of the liner to just outside the port saved thousands of lives. He also contends that the ship's navigational charts did not indicate that the reef was in its path as it cruised near the island on part of a week-long Mediterranean tour.
A recording of a phone conversation between Schettino and an exasperated Italian coastguard official who repeatedly ordered the captain in vain to scramble back on board the ship to direct the evacuation was played again and again in broadcasts around the world. In interviews, Schettino insisted he is no coward. He claimed he had to leave the capsizing liner before it was impossible to launch any more lifeboats and that in the darkness he did not see a ladder he could have used to climb back on board.
The captain has depicted himself as a scapegoat. Five other defendants - two ship officials, a helmsman, the hotel director aboard and the director of the cruise company's crisis unit - successfully sought pleas bargains. Yesterday, the lawyers' strike prompted the postponement of a hearing to announce their sentences, likely to be a fraction of what Schettino could get.