Cruise Ship Costa Concordia
Rescue firefighters are lowered from a helicopter onto the grounded cruise liner Costa Concordia, off the west coast of Italy at Giglio island Jan. 30. Reuters

On Monday, former Costa Concordia Captain Francesco Schettino faced survivors and relatives of victims for the first time since the luxury cruise ship sank this past January.

The hearing, which will decide whether a judge orders a criminal trial, took place in a theater in Grosseto, Italy, to accommodate the large crowds gathered to watch as Schettino heard the evidence against him.

An estimated 32 people perished when the Concordia cruise ship slammed into rocks off the coast of Italy’s Giglio Island, forcing a nighttime evacuation of more than 4,000 passengers. Schettino is accused of manslaughter after steering the ship too closely to the shore as a way of “saluting” the inhabitants, a procedure he claims the ship’s owner, Carnival Corp.’s Italian unit Costa Crociere, instructed him to do. He is also charged with abandoning ship before all passengers were evacuated.

Court documents show that Coast Guard Commander Gregorio Maria De Falco ordered Schettino back on the cruise liner on several occasions after he left. The captain initially claimed that only 40 people remained on the ship at a time that it was later revealed hundreds of passengers were clambering across the exposed hull to reach rescue boats.

Despite these allegations, Schettino’s lawyer said last week he will appeal his dismissal by Costa Crociere, adding that the captain saved hundreds of lives by maneuvering the ship closer to the shore after it struck the reef and took in water.

Lawyers representing the victim’s families have said they want to look beyond Schettino to the bigger problem: procedures put in place by the ship’s operator.

“The reason these people died is not because of Captain Schettino; the reason these people died is because of the corporation, the negligence in their practices and safety procedures. There was no reason for anyone to die,” Peter Ronai, a lawyer for the victims’ families, told Reuters.

Monday’s closed-door hearing included evidence against eight other defendants, including crew members and officials from Costa Crociere.

Four court-appointed experts delivered a 270-page report documenting what went wrong on the luxury liner (made available to the public last month) that placed blame on both the reef and the botched evacuation by Schettino and members of the crisis unit of the ship’s operator. The report also noted that not all crew members had current certification for evacuation procedures, many crew members did not understand Italian and dozens of passengers had not participated in the evacuation drills.

Findings from the report reflect passenger accounts of a confused and delayed evacuation.

A review of black-box recordings this week will likely clarify what responsibility Costa Crociere shares in the tragedy. In September, the company claimed accusations that its staff was unprepared for emergencies were “without foundation,” placing sole blame on the captain.

The toppled cruise liner remains on its side in shallow waters off Giglio. The island’s mayor, Sergio Ortelli, claims tourism was down 30 percent over the summer “because in the tourists’ minds remains the Costa Concordia crisis.” The ship will likely be gone from the coast of Giglio by next spring, long before the cases against Schettino and others make their way through the Italian courts.