The captain blamed for the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise liner that killed 32 people shook hands with survivors and apologised yesterday at an Italian court hearing to decide if he should face a full trial.
The case of Francesco Schettino, 51, was of such interest that a theatre had to be turned into a courtroom in the Tuscan city of Grosseto to accommodate those who had a legitimate claim to be at the closed-door hearing.
Thirty-two people died after Schettino, in an alleged stunt, took his Costa Concordia cruise ship off course and brought it close to the Tuscan island of Giglio on the night of January 13. The ship then ran aground and capsized. Schettino drew global criticism 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.
Eight others face charges, including crew members and officials at Costa Crociere, the company that owns the Concordia.
Luciano Castro, an Italian survivor at the hearing, said Schettino seemed "embarrassed" when they spoke. "The only thing he said -when I told him that I hope that the truth will soon be established - was, 'Yes, it needs to be established soon,'" Castro said.
Two German survivors who attended the hearing said Schettino had shaken their hands and said he was sorry.
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 Costa Crociere, a division of the Miami-based Carnival Corp.
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, perished after giving his lifejacket to a child.
"The reason people died was not the captain [alone]," Ronai said before the hearing. "There was no reason for anyone to die."
Passengers have recounted scenes of chaos during the disaster, with crew members giving conflicting, confusing directions.
"The ship was as big as a shopping mall, there was dark, there was absolute chaos, men were pushing women away, children in the back," Ronai said.
Costa Crociere has denied negligence and distanced itself from Schettino, firing him in July.
The Costa Concordia still lies on its side off Giglio, streaked with rust and algae, its funnel hacked off, its lower windows smashed by divers as they desperately searched for survivors.
Experts say it has become the world's most expensive salvage operation, costing US$300 million (HK$2.3 billion).
Additional reporting by The Guardian