Cruise ship disaster pre-trial hearings begin in Italy

Indictment hearings against six suspects in the Costa Concordia luxury liner disaster began in Italy on Monday, with local authorities at the site of the shipwreck requesting compensation of more than 80 million euros ($105 million).

The main suspect is captain Francesco Schettino, who is accused of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, misinforming the coast guard after the crash and abandoning the ship during the rescue.

A sombre-looking Schettino, who usually lives on probation in his home town of Meta on the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy, was present at the hearing with special permission from the judge.

Thirty-two people lost their lives -- among them a five-year-old girl -- when the giant luxury liner crashed into an Italian island on the night of January 13, 2012 during a Mediterranean cruise.

Lawyers for the island of Giglio, where the ship still lies, said the local council had asked to be a plaintiff in the case and was seeking compensation "in excess of 80 million euros."

Among around 200 parties who have requested to be plaintiffs in the pre-trial hearings are ship operator Costa Crociere and dozens of survivors.

One group of passengers, which has named itself "Justice for the Concordia", is asking for compensation of 500,000 euros per survivor.

"My clients would like to try and understand what really happened, why it happened and whose fault it is," said Massimiliano Valcada, a lawyer for the family of one of the French victims.

"This will not change what happened that terrible night but they need to know the truth -- why their loved one died that night," he said.

Among the four crew members other than Schettino who are accused by prosecutors is the ship's Indonesian helmsman Jacob Rusli Bin, suspected of contributing to the tragedy by misunderstanding a vital command moments before the crash.

Rusli Bin's whereabouts are not known but he has been assigned a lawyer and the accusations against him will be heard in absentia.

The sixth accused is Roberto Ferrarini, the head of Costa's crisis unit who is also suspected of failing to keep the coast guard adequately informed and thereby delaying the rescue.

All six are accused of manslaughter.

Schettino has denied intentionally abandoning ship while passengers still had to be evacuated, telling investigators that he fell off the liner when it tilted at a near-90 degree angle.

The Costa Concordia crashed at high speed into Giglio with 4,229 people from 70 countries on board as Schettino attempted a risky "salute" manoeuvre to the island.

After the impact with a group of offshore rocks, the giant liner then veered sharply and keeled over in shallow water near the shore.

Most of the passengers and crew were evacuated with the ship's lifeboats but hundreds had to jump into the sea and swim ashore in the dark.

The court has scheduled 40 pre-trial hearings lasting into July before it rules on whether a trial should go ahead and when it will take place.

The case is being heard in Grosseto, the city nearest to Giglio where as an unprecedented salvage operation is underway to right the cruise ship, refloat it and tow it away.

Dozens of survivors have civil lawsuits against Costa Crociere, the biggest operator in Europe and a subsidiary of the US-based giant Carnival Corp.

Most of the survivors who did not suffer injuries or lose loved ones have accepted compensation from Costa of around 11,000 euros ($14,000) each.

The company negotiated a controversial plea bargain with the court in the criminal case last week in which it accepted limited responsibility as the employer of the suspects and was ordered to pay a one million euro fine.

"This company has disregarded safety for the sake of its passengers, to just increase its profits. The industry must change," said John Artur Eaves, a US lawyer representing around 150 survivors.

Some lawyers allege that the company had poorly-trained personnel and malfunctioning equipment on board and caused delays in the evacuation -- all accusations denied by Costa Crociere.

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