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, 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 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. Schettino then became a lightning rod for international distain for having left the ship before everyone was evacuated.
Hearings this week will help decide whether the judge will order a trial for 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 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 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 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 had the chance to participate in evacuation drills.
While the experts' findings heavily faulted 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.
Among them is Peter Ronai, a lawyer for the family of a Hungarian violinist who, survivors recounted, gave his life vest to a child before perishing himself.
"The reason people died was not the captain" alone, Ronai told reporters before entering the hearing. "There was no reason for anyone to die."
He recalled that the lights had gone out on board after the collision and that crew members weren't all trained in safety procedures.
"This ship was as big as a shopping mall. There was absolute chaos," Ronai said.
Costa Crociere has denied that it was negligent and has distanced itself from 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.
Schettino has insisted that by guiding the stricken ship into shallower waters near Giglio's port instead of immediately ordering an evacuation he potentially saved lives. He has claimed that another official, not he, was at the helm when the ship struck.
The timeline in the experts' report, however, makes clear that he had assumed command six minutes before the ship struck the reef.
An American lawyer representing more than 150 people in U.S.-based lawsuits against Carnival Corp. said he came from Mississippi to closely follow evidence that could be useful in his cases. Aside from financial compensation for his clients, John Arthur Eaves Jr. said he is pushing for improved standards in the cruise industry.
"There is a consistent pattern of lack of discipline ... and communication problems," he told reporters. "This accident will happen again."
"The sooner we can resolve it, the sooner these victims can get back to rebuilding their lives," Eaves added.