Captain of capsized liner could be in danger at hearing-lawyer

Fri Mar 2, 2012 9:08am EST

* Lawyer says climate around hearing could be dangerous

* Schettino says others are responsible too

* Hundreds of journalists arrive for hearing

By Hanna Rantala

GROSSETO, Italy, March 2 (Reuters) - The captain of a giant cruise liner which capsized off Italy, killing at least 25 people, could be in danger if he attends a pre-trial hearing on Saturday into the disaster, his lawyer said.

Prosecutors have accused captain Francesco Schettino of causing the accident by bringing the multi-storey Costa Concordia too close to the shore of the Mediterranean island of Giglio in January, where it was torn open by rocks.

He has already been held up to condemnation and ridicule around the world.

Seven people are unaccounted for and divers are still looking for bodies in the capsized and partly submerged vessel.

A hearing will be held in a theatre in the Tuscan town of Grosseto on Saturday, when judges will question experts about the wrecking of the 114,500 tonne liner.

Lawyer Bruno Leporatti told Reuters Television in Grosseto that the captain "is a man who has feelings, who is pained over what happened. He feels pain for the victims, naturally and is stunned by all that is going on."

Schettino, who spent three decades at sea, is under house arrest in his home in Meta di Sorrento, near Naples.

"Captain Schettino will not attend the pre-trial hearing because it is not of use or any help if he embarks on a return trip of 850 km from where he is held under house arrest, just to be present, which would be unnecessary and perhaps with this climate that has been created around him, also a little dangerous for him," Leporatti said in the interview this week.

Schettino is accused of a string of charges including multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship before the evacuation of more than 4,200 passengers and crew.

First officer Ciro Ambrosio and seven other ships' officers and executives of the ship's owners, Costa Cruises, are also under investigation.

SECOND COSTA LINER IN TROUBLE

The hearing will come after 627 passengers disembarked in the Seychelles on Thursday from another Costa liner, the much smaller Costa Allegra, which had to be towed for three days by a French fishing boat in the Indian Ocean after a fire knocked out its engines.

Leporatti said the Grosseto hearing starting on Saturday, whose duration is unclear, would confirm what Schettino had said about the disaster from the start.

"The new results from the investigations, the new visual evidence, show a completely different reality from what was originally claimed ... immediately after the incident."

"We have seen a completely different take on things from what everyone has been trying to make us believe," he said.

Leporatti said Schettino, who is blamed for bringing the Costa Concordia to within a stone's throw of shore in a display manoeuvre known as a "salute" to islanders, had always said he should not be the only one blamed for the tragedy.

He said investigations were showing that "there are also others, whose actions are currently being evaluated by the investigators and hopefully there will be even more".

Among those under investigation are the vice president of Costa, Manfred Ursprunger, and the head of its crisis unit, Roberto Ferrarini, with whom Schettino was in contact during the evacuation.

The company, a unit of the world's largest cruise operator, Carnival Corp , has blamed Schettino for the accident.

Many townspeople in Meta di Sorrento have been supportive of Schettino since his arrest, in contrast to media treatment elsewhere in Italy and abroad.

"Let's wait to hear what the trial will say before we condemn him. This man has been executed before the trial has even started and you (the press) have executed him," said resident Rosa Tito on Friday.

Another man in Meta, who asked not to be named, told Reuters: "I know from people who have known him and who have sailed with him that he has always been an excellent officer ... I don't know why he made the choices he did. I really don't know what may have gone through his head."

Hundreds of Italian and foreign journalists, together with television satellite trucks, are gathering in Grosseto, which is the centre of the investigation into the shipwreck.

Judges will be ordering tests on the black box recorders from the ship when the hearing opens on Saturday. Local media said around 70 lawyers and their teams, representing survivors and relatives of victims, among others, were expected to attend Saturday's hearing.

The theatre where it is being held can hold more than 1,000 people but the hearings will not be open to the public or journalists.

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