Concordia captain: It was the helmsman's fault

GROSSETO, Italy (AP) - September 23, 2013

Capt. Francesco Schettino, the sole defendant on trial, also pressed his request for an inspection of the crippled luxury liner, which just last week was raised upright in a spectacular salvage operation off the Tuscan island of Giglio.

The complicated maritime operation righted the Concordia outside Giglio harbor, where it had capsized the night of Jan. 13, 2012, killing 32 people. Salvage engineers say the now-upright ship would be more accessible for court-appointed experts to inspect.

Schettino is charged with manslaughter, with causing the shipwreck and with abandoning ship before its 4,200 passengers and crew could all be safely evacuated. He contends he is being made a scapegoat and that errors by other Costa Crociere SpA crew and mechanical problems aggravated the consequences of the tragedy.

The Concordia crashed into a reef, took on water and capsized when Schettino steered it too close to Giglio during what was supposed to be a weeklong pleasure cruise in the Mediterranean.

Schettino told the court that as the Concordia came perilously close to Giglio's rocky coastline, he ordered his helmsman to steer the tiller to the left, but the crewman reacted too slowly, and shifted to the right instead.

"In my experience, there wouldn't have been the crash" had the helmsman promptly had carried out the proper maneuver, Schettino said.

"If it weren't for the helmsman's error, to not position the tiller to the left ... the swerve (toward the reef) and the collision wouldn't have happened," Schettino contended.

The captain has claimed that by making a fast maneuver, he would have pulled the Concordia away from its collision course. The jagged reef sliced a 70-meter (230-foot) gash in the ship's hull.

Investigators have said previously that language problems between the Italian captain and the Indonesian-born helmsman might have played a role in the botched maneuver.

A maritime expert, whose findings contributed to Schettino's indictment, told the court the helmsman was slow to react and had indeed erred, but that in the end it didn't matter.

"The helmsman was 13 seconds late in executing the maneuver, but the crash would have happened anyway," Italian naval Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone said Monday,

Schettino in the past has said the reef wasn't on his charts and that the company should shoulder some blame. If convicted, he risks 20 years in prison.

The ship wasn't following its pre-established route allegedly because Schettino wanted to impress the passengers, who were having dinner, with a close-up view of the island's twinkling lights.

The helmsman, Jacob Rusli Bin, is one of five Costa Crociere SpA employees who were granted plea bargains in return for mild sentences in a separate proceeding. He was convicted of manslaughter and causing the shipwreck, and was given a sentence of one year and 8 months.

Because of a law shaving three years off sentences to reduce prison overcrowding, the helmsman is unlikely to serve any time behind bars.

The ship, now upright and resting on a man-made platform on the seabed, is expected to be towed away next year and broken up for scrap.

Schettino's defense team wants experts to go inside the ship to determine why water pumps and an emergency generator failed to function. He also said water-tight doors in areas critical to the ship's functioning, such as the engine room, also didn't work.

"The power generator, as are the other devices, are fundamental to understanding what happened that night," Schettino's lawyer, Francesco Pepe said on his way into court. "We want to understand why they didn't work."

Lawyers for the plaintiffs are also pressing for answers to the ship's reported mechanical failures and they want the responsibility for the tragedy to be placed on more than just Schettino's shoulders.

"It is unfair that we have only one defendant," said Michelina Suriano, one of the lawyers representing injured parties. "He should be together with many others."

The trial is being held in a Grosseto theater instead of the town's courthouse to allow relatives and lawyers of the 4,200 passengers and crew to attend if they want. Many of them are pressing lawsuits attached to the criminal trial.

But the cavernous theater, with its red upholstered seats, was largely empty Monday, as witnesses were not expected to be called for several weeks.

Italian authorities recently confirmed that Schettino's maritime navigational license has been revoked, dashing his hopes of one day again being captain of a ship.

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