Costa Concordia captain looks to spread blame for accident

GROSSETO, Italy Mon Sep 23, 2013 10:55am EDT

1 of 3. The cruise liner Costa Concordia is seen at the end of the 'parbuckling' operation outside Giglio harbour September 17, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Tony Gentile

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GROSSETO, Italy (Reuters) - The captain of the Costa Concordia told a court on Monday that a junior officer who was at the wheel at the time shared the blame for the cruise liner disaster that killed 32 people last year.

Francesco Schettino faces multiple charges including manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship after the Concordia, carrying more than 4,000 passengers and crew, struck a reef off the Tuscan island of Giglio and capsized on January 13, 2012.

Tanned and wearing a grey suit, Schettino said his Indonesian helmsman had failed to carry out an order to set the rudder left in the last moments as the Concordia came close to shore, causing a fatal 13-second delay before it ran aground.

"The delay was the result of the mistake," he told the court, during a session in which expert witnesses considered the role of the helmsman as well as possible faults in the emergency generators and pumps.

"If there had not been this mistake, in not positioning the rudder to the left ... there would not have been this impact," he said.

The argument was rejected by the head of the expert committee, Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, who said that any delay appeared to be irrelevant.

"The ship would have hit the rocks in any case," he said.

Schettino, who has been in constant attendance at the hearings, chatting readily with journalists in the courtroom bar and talking often on television, has admitted that he bears responsibility for the accident as the ship's captain.

But he says that he is not the only person to blame and wants the vessel to be examined for evidence of possible technical faults that may have contributed to the deaths during the desperate night-time evacuation of the ship.

With global media interest, the trial, in the Tuscan town of Grosseto, is being held in a specially adapted theatre. It reopened a week after the operation to raise the wreck of the Concordia opened the way for a search for clues on what caused the accident.

As well as the role of the helmsman, the expert witnesses have been looking at faults with emergency generators which they said had not functioned, although there was no explanation why.

RESPONSIBILITY

"We think it is strange to have investigated a ship of this size without even having stepped onboard," said Francesco Pepe, one of Schettino's legal team. "We hope the judges decide it is right to go and carry out a series of tests on the ship."

The 290-metre-long, 114,500-ton vessel, now sits two thirds submerged on specially constructed platforms just off Giglio while salvage crews prepare for it to be towed away and broken up next year.

Underwater robots have resumed the search for the missing bodies of two victims, but before engineers can start work on refloating the wreck, prosecutors want to examine it for more evidence about what happened on the night it sank.

"We think that this ship had things that did not work including the alarms and communication, and when the passengers were onboard this series of things did not work properly," said Alessandra Guarini, a lawyer for one of the passengers.

"We hope tests carried out, will answer our questions; Why was a ship of this kind unable to save all the passengers onboard?"

The crushed and twisted side of the Concordia now visible shows the scale of damage to the ship's structure and it will be months before the hulk is stable enough to be towed away.

The call for a new search for evidence, following a formal request filed in July, was backed by other parties, including Italian consumer group Codacons, a civil party to the case.

Stripped of his maritime license last week, Schettino is the only person on trial after four crew members and an official of the ship operator Costa Cruises, a division of Carnival Corp, were sentenced to terms of up to 34 months in prison after pleading guilty last year.

"The thing that is unjust is that there is only one person on trial, he does have his guilt but he should be here with a lot of other people," said Michelina Soriano, a lawyer representing one group of passengers.

"We had plea bargains agreed for the other people on trial at a completely scandalous level, scandalous. Sentences that are completely insufficient," she said.

(Additional reporting by Gabriele Pileri; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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