By Silvia Ognibene
GROSSETO, Italy (Reuters) - The captain blamed for the Costa Concordia cruise liner disaster off the Italian coast that killed 32 people in January shook hands with survivors and apologized on Monday at a court hearing which will decide whether the case goes to a full trial.
Francesco Schettino appeared relaxed and spoke often to his legal team, the lawyer representing 80 U.S. survivors and family members said.
The 114,500-tonne luxury cruise ship capsized on January 13 after approaching the Tuscan island of Giglio to perform a maneuver close to the shore known as a salute. It struck a rock which tore a gash in its hull.
Schettino has admitted he made mistakes but has accused the company of mishandling the response. He said last week he was suing Costa Cruises, a unit of Carnival Corp., for unfair dismissal following the accident.
His lawyer Francesco Pepe said the hearing would show his client was not solely responsible for the disaster.
"Schettino's responsibility needs to be established and it needs to be established that others may have contributed as well," he said after the conclusion of the hearing's first day.
"Schettino is very confident because the real pattern of responsibility is beginning to emerge," he said.
Schettino's defense team highlighted the role played by an Indonesian helmsman they said had misunderstood orders given by Schettino to avoid the rocks off Giglio. In a statement after the hearing was concluded, they said the expert report showed that Schettino's orders may not have been carried out correctly and the accident may have been avoided had they been.
Held up to ridicule in Italy and abroad since the disaster, Schettino faces charges of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship during a chaotic night-time evacuation of 4,200 passengers and crew. Two bodies have still not been recovered. The ship is still sitting half-submerged on a rocky shelf off the island.
It was the first such hearing Schettino has attended.
Luciano Castro, an Italian survivor at the hearing in a theatre in the central town of Grosseto, said Schettino appeared "embarrassed" when they spoke briefly.
"The only thing he said was when I told him that I hope that the truth will soon be established, he said, 'Yes, it needs to be established soon'," Castro told reporters.
Two German survivors who attended the hearing said Schettino had shaken their hands and said he was sorry.
Lawyers representing the victims' families said they wanted to look beyond Schettino.
"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," said Peter Ronai, a lawyer for the victims' families.
On Monday, the court heard evidence that the maps used on the ship were not adequate, that the vessel came too close to shore at too high a speed and that the crew was not properly prepared for the evacuation.
Prosecutors are expected to speak on Tuesday, ahead of evidence from consultants and lawyers for the parties directly involved in the case towards the end of the week.
Schettino did not speak during Monday morning's hearing but his lawyers said he accepted blame for the accident and wanted the full truth to be established.
"The captain is doing what is in his right to do, he is conducting his defense," lawyer Pepe told reporters outside the closed-door hearing.
"It is in his interest that the truth comes out and it is a question of respect, not just for his rights but also the rights of the survivors," he said.
Eight other officers and executives of Costa Cruises, the ship's owner, are also being investigated for their roles in the accident.
The hearings will include the presentation of data taken from the ship's "black box" and an analysis of the accident by a panel of experts.
Castro, who was aboard the ship when it capsized, said: "What I would say to Captain Schettino is first to tell the truth and second to remember when he speaks that there are people looking at him who are still missing loved ones, people who will never be found because of what happened."
(Additional reporting by Hanna Rantala and Antonio Denti; Writing by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Pravin Char and Michael Roddy)