Italy's captain Schettino returns to site of disaster

The captain of the wrecked Costa Concordia cruise ship, Francesco Schettino, returned to the site of the disaster for the first time on Tuesday after the judge at his trial ruled he could board the stricken vessel.

Schettino took a ferry to Giglio Island off the coast of Tuscany in central Italy, where the giant ship has remained stranded since it crashed on the night of January 13, 2012 in a tragedy that claimed 32 lives.

The chief judge at Schettino's trial in nearby Grosseto earlier on Tuesday accepted a request from his defence that he be allowed to take part in an inspection of the ship by a group of experts from the court on Thursday.

Contacted by AFP, his lawyer Domenico Pepe was not able to say what Schettino would be doing on Wednesday before boarding the ship. The island's mayor Sergio Ortelli said he knew nothing about Schettino's visit.

Pepe said his return would be a "great emotion" for Schettino and "could help establish the facts".

Judge Giovanni Puliatti on Tuesday said Schettino would be allowed onto the ship "as a defendant, not a consultant" and would therefore have permission only to "be present during the work but not to intervene".

Many local residents blame Schettino for a tragedy that has turned life in their small fishing community upside down, although some also say he should not be a "scapegoat" and point to wider responsibilities.

Five other people including Roberto Ferrarini, the director of ship owner Costa Crociere's crisis unit, have negotiated plea bargains over the crash but Schettino is the only person currently on trial.

- 'Captain coward' -

The luxury liner crashed into a group of rocks just off shore as it was attempting a risky "salute" manoeuvre with 4,229 people from 70 countries on board.

The captain is charged with manslaughter, causing environmental damage and abandoning the ship before the end of the evacuation -- an accusation that has earned him the tabloid nickname of "Captain Coward".

The disaster happened when passengers were sitting down to dinner and some drowned after throwing themselves into the sea in the darkness, while others were trapped in the lifts as the huge liner keeled over.

Schettino has defended himself by saying that he was no longer able to stay on the ship because it was almost at a 90-degree angle and he could oversee the evacuation better from land rather than on board.

The captain has also blamed the Indonesian helmsman, Jacob Rusli Bin, for causing the accident.

"I wanted to slow the ship down. But the helmsman did not follow my orders correctly," he has told the court in a trial that began last year and is expected to last for months because of a long list of witnesses.

The 290-metre (951-foot), 114,500-tonne ship was dragged upright last year in the biggest ever salvage operation on a passenger ship and it is due to be re-floated and towed away for scrapping later this year.

Prosecutors on Tuesday also said they had opened a separate investigation for evidence tampering against the ship's official guardian, Franco Porcellacchia, an engineer who is overseeing the salvage.

Porcellacchia is alleged to have boarded the ship illegally a day before another inspection last month, accessing a generator and possibly "altering the data that was to be found" by the technical experts.

Prosecutor Stefano Pizza said the allegation was "grave" but ship owner Costa Crociere's lawyer Marco De Luca said it would blow over and Porcellacchia was only preparing for the inspectors' arrival.