By Silvia Ognibene
GROSSETO, Italy (Reuters) - The doomed Costa Concordia liner steamed into rocks off the Italian island of Giglio so quickly that within seconds water was rushing into a 35 meter-long gash torn into the hull and nothing could be done to save it, a court heard on Tuesday.
The evidence was presented during a pre-trial hearing into the disaster during which expert witnesses said key pieces of equipment, including a sonar depth sounder, were switched off when the accident happened.
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.
His lawyers say that several aspects of the case need closer examination, including whether all the onboard safety and navigation equipment was working properly. They also say the ship's Indonesian helmsman may not have understood orders given by Schettino.
Much of the argument presented at the hearing this week has focused on possible wider failures that may have contributed to the loss of the giant liner, which capsized and sank on January 13 after being brought too close to shore during a maneuver known as a "salute".
The ship's equipment, crew training and safety procedures have all been criticized but the liner's operator, Costa Cruises, a unit of the U.S.-based Carnival Corp, has placed the blame squarely on Schettino.
"The size of the hole in the Concordia is enormous as was confirmed by the expert evidence which was discussed this morning," the company's lawyer Marco De Luca told reporters outside the closed-door hearing.
"It was also confirmed than within 40-50 seconds the ship was unmanageable because the systems went down immediately."
He said water rushed in so quickly that the company's crisis unit, in charge of handling the response to the accident from shore, had no time to do anything before the ship was lost.
SONAR EQUIPMENT OFF
However Schettino's lawyer Bruno Leporatti said despite the evidence presented in court, much remained to be established.
"Up to now, there have been declarations by the experts, who have given their interpretations and views, but the truth of what happened has not been established," he said.
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.
Leporatti also said onboard equipment, including emergency generators did not work at vital moments. "A series of instruments did not work and the experts haven't explained why, so we have to try to understand," he said.
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 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)