GROSSETO, Italy (Reuters) - An echo sounder that tracks water depth had been switched off before the cruise liner Costa Concordia struck a rock and capsized off the Italian coast in January, witnesses at a pre-trial hearing said on Tuesday.
The Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino, is accused of the manslaughter of 32 people, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship. He has admitted to making mistakes, but says he should not be the only one blamed.
The ship's operator, Costa Cruises, a unit of the U.S.-based Carnival Corp, has placed the blame squarely on Schettino and said that nothing discussed in the pre-trial hearing so far concerns its own organization.
A panel of court experts told the hearing that the sonar device had been off at the time of the shipwreck, according to people present in the hearing, which was closed to the public because the huge media interest could not be accommodated.
The accident triggered a chaotic night-time evacuation of more than 4,000 passengers and crew on the rocky shoreline of the Tuscan island of Giglio. Thirty bodies have been recovered from the wreck and another two people remain unaccounted for.
Costa Cruises told the hearing that that the ship had been equipped with more radar systems than needed, and that enough of them had been in operation to meet legal requirements.
Codacons, a consumer rights group that has been closely involved in the case, said more information was needed about the state of the ship's equipment before the disaster.
"All these aspects, had they been functional, may possibly have made up for the negative effects of Captain Schettino's actions and helped avoid the loss of human lives, even if the ship might have sunk nonetheless," said Giuliano Leuzzi, a lawyer for Codacons.
The ship itself remains on its side, balanced on a rocky shelf in full view of the harbor. Hundreds of divers and salvage engineers have begun the delicate operation of preparing the hulk for removal.
The pre-trial hearing will decide whether or not the charges against Schettino requested by prosecutors should stand and the case go to a full trial, expected next year.
(Reporting by Antonio Denti and Hanna Rantala; Editing by Kevin Liffey)