By Silvia Aloisi
GROSSETO, Italy (Reuters) - Survivors and relatives of victims of the Costa Concordia shipwreck clamoured for truth at a pre-trial hearing in Italy on Saturday, with some still waiting for identification of the remains of their loved ones 1-1/2 months after the disaster.
The giant cruise liner capsized off the Tuscan island of Giglio after hitting a rock on January 13, killing at least 25 people. Seven people are still unaccounted for, and eight of the bodies found have yet to be identified.
Prosecutors have accused captain Francesco Schettino of causing the accident by bringing the multi-storey Costa Concordia, which was carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew, too close to the shore.
Eight other officers and executives of the ship's owner, Costa Cruises, are also under investigation.
"We want to know the truth, what happened, and what we are supposed to do now. That's all we are asking," said Hilaire Blemand, a French national whose 25-year-old son Michael was onboard the ship with his girlfriend Mylene Litzler, 23.
Both are still reported missing.
"It's been too long already, it's been six weeks," he said at the theatre in the Tuscan city of Grosseto that has been turned into a makeshift courtroom.
The theatre is expected to accommodate hundreds of victims' relatives, survivors and lawyers for all sides, but is not open to the general public or media.
Fighting back tears at his side, Mylene's mother Brigitte Litzler said her anguish had deepened after identification of the bodies was suspended at the request of the lawyer for one of the ship's officers under investigation. He argued forensic experts from the defence team should be part of the process.
"It's like they have killed them a second time," Litzler said. "We are dead inside already, they have killed our kids so we are dead, too. But we won't give up, we will keep returning until we have them back."
Schettino, who is under arrest in his home in Meta di Sorrento, near Naples, did not turn up for the hearing. His lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, said he could have been in danger had he decided to attend.
The captain "is a man who has feelings, who is pained over what happened. He feels pain for the victims," Leporatti told Reuters Television.
His presence at the hearing would have been "unnecessary and perhaps with this climate that has been created around him, also a little dangerous for him," Leporatti said.
Schettino is accused of a string of charges including multiple manslaughter and abandoning the 114,500-tonne liner before the evacuation of all passengers and crew.
"I don't think he has got the guts to show up in front of all the passengers whom he put through all that fear," Adriano Bertaglia, a survivor participating in a class action suit against the company, told Reuters in front of the theatre.
"NO-ONE SHOULD HAVE DIED"
The hearing comes after 627 passengers disembarked in the Seychelles on Thursday from another Costa liner, the Costa Allegra, which had to be towed for three days by a French fishing boat in the Indian Ocean after a fire knocked out its engines.
Schettino has acknowledged bringing the Costa Concordia to within a stone's throw of shore in a display manoeuvre known as a "salute" to islanders, but he has said he should not be the only one blamed for the tragedy.
Passengers who managed to escape from the listing ship said they wanted to know why the evacuation order was delayed for more than an hour after the ship struck a rock that tore a large gash in the hull.
"It's not for me to judge, but no-one should have died that evening, why did they wait for so long?" asked Sergio Amarotto, who was aboard with his wife, two cousins and some friends.
"Schettino did something absurd by bringing the ship so close to the shore, and then he kept telling lies, one after the other. But I want to know whether the managers of Costa are also responsible."
Among those under investigation are the vice president of Costa, Manfred Ursprunger, and the head of its crisis unit, Roberto Ferrarini, with whom Schettino was in contact during the evacuation.
The company, a unit of the world's largest cruise operator, Carnival Corp, has blamed Schettino for the accident.
At the hearing in Grosseto, judges will order tests on the black box recorders from the ship.
(Additional reporting by Reuters Television and Silvia Ognibene; Editing by Sophie Hares)