Costa Concordia wreck captain Schettino awaits verdict

Francesco Schettino arrives at court (10 Feb) Image copyright AFP
Image caption Francesco Schettino arrived at court on Tuesday ahead of the verdict

The long trial in Italy of the man at the centre of the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster, Capt Francesco Schettino, is in its final moments.

Thirty-two people died in January 2012 when the ship was steered too close to the island of Giglio and hit rocks.

Capt Schettino is about to find out whether he is guilty of multiple manslaughter.

The prosecution has demanded that he be jailed for 26 years but the captain denies all the charges against him.

Prosecution and defence lawyers have made final statements, and the judges are close to delivering their verdict.

They have heard how the captain sailed his huge ship into disaster.

He has told the court that he was attempting to "salute" the island, by carrying out a sort of nautical fly-past that would take the liner skimming past the coast, very close in.

It was an attempt to impress his passengers and those ashore.

Disaster timeline

Image copyright Reuters
  • 13 Jan 2012: Costa Concordia runs aground
  • Jul 2013: Capt Schettino goes on trial for multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship
  • Jul 2013: Five crew jailed for manslaughter for up to two years and 10 months
  • Jul 2014: Costa Concordia refloated and towed to Genoa

Captain on trial

Salvaging the Costa Concordia

The court has examined in detail all that happened when the stunt went terribly wrong: how the ship was ripped open on the rocks and more than 4,000 passengers and crew were forced into a chaotic evacuation in the dark of a winter's night.

In its closing arguments the prosecution told the court he had acted with "monstrously gross negligence".

It said he had compounded his crime by abandoning his vessel, saving himself, while many of his passengers were still in great danger.

"The captain's duty to abandon ship last isn't just an obligation dictated by ancient maritime tradition, but also a legal obligation designed to minimise injuries," said the prosecution.

Capt Schettino "thought only and always of himself".

All along, he and his lawyers have argued that others should share the blame for the disaster, that it was a collective failure.

He pointed to the fact that the helmsman had been slow to carry out a steering order at a crucial moment as the ship closed in on the rocks. And he said others on the bridge should have seen the danger coming.

"One of the officers should have said to me, 'Commander, we are on the rocks,' but instead there was a general silence."

He vigorously rejects the allegation that he was so gripped by indecision as the disaster engulfed him that he badly delayed giving the order to abandon ship, endangering many more people.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The trial of Francesco Schettino (L next to car) was held in a theatre as the court was not big enough
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Francesco Schettino's lawyer Domenico Pepe (L) says any penalty for his client should be minimal

He argues that he waited because he knew the wind was carrying the ship into shallower, safer water. He insists that his action actually saved many lives.

This trial, with its hundreds of witnesses and thousands of documents was too big for Grosseto's courthouse, so it was moved to the local theatre, the Teatro Moderno, and the drama is unfolding there.

Outside on the street, a growing throng of journalists watches the lawyers and court officials come and go.

And in the bars and cafes, nobody really doubts that Francesco Schettino will be found guilty.

Even his lawyer, the tall, grey-haired Domenico Pepe, chatting as he enjoyed a smoke in the winter sunshine, almost seemed to suggest that he felt his client would be convicted.

A little earlier in court he had appealed to the judges to acquit the captain. But he had also said: "If the court has to impose a penalty, we believe it should be the minimum one in the light of the extenuating circumstances."

Among those gathering in Grosseto for the climax of the trial is Anne Decre, the president of a group of French survivors of the Costa Concordia.

"I wanted to see him face to face. I looked him in the eyes, and I said, 'I am your French victim'," she said of the captain,

"He lowered his eyes and walked away.

"I now feel upside down. There is such a lot of sadness. A lot of injustice. I'm confused."

Then she added, "Costa is missing." It was a reference to the fact that the ship's operator, Costa Crociere, was not in the dock.

In the aftermath of the wreck of its vessel the company was allowed to make a plea bargain and was fined €1m (£740,000; $1.13m).

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The cruise ship was refloated in September 2013 and eventually towed to port in July 2014

But this was not enough for some of the survivors and their lawyers. They argue that the firm still has questions to answer on issues such as the calibre of the ship's crew and its operating procedures.

On the eve of the verdict, one of the survivors asked how the company could have put a man like Francesco Schettino in charge of the Concordia.

But outside the Teatro Moderno, a lawyer for the firm told journalists that it was "not in the least bit possible... that Costa Crociere in some measure could have been able to prevent a disaster of this kind".

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