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03.03.12

Costa Concordia Inquiry Begins: Transcripts and Reports From the Scene

Amid grieving families and dozens of lawyers, the inquiry into Italy's cruise-ship catastrophe began. Barbie Nadeau reports—and reveals transcripts from the first mate's interrogation.

Capt. Francesco Schettino was not wearing his eyeglasses when he set the parameters on the maritime radar system that should have prevented the Costa Concordia from crashing into the rocks and capsizing off Giglio, Italy, on the Friday the 13th of January.

“He asked me over and over to help him with the ship’s instruments because he couldn’t see,” Ciro Ambrosio, the ship’s first mate, told investigators according the transcript of Ambrosio’s interrogation obtained by The Daily Beast. “He was in a state of denial, and he was also asking us to lie about the gravity of the situation.”

But lawyers for the passengers say that revelations about the erstwhile captain’s bad decisions both before and after the shipwreck aren’t enough to cast the blame solely on him. On Saturday, the Grosseto Tribunal rented out a thousand-seat theater to accommodate the 4,200 passengers and crew who had the right to attend the second preliminary hearing. In the end, they didn’t need the space. More than 70 lawyers showed up, but only around 20 passengers and two family members of those who died in the wreck attended the closed-door hearing with Judge Valeria Montesarchio presiding.

The judge ruled on two issues only: which parties can participate in further investigatory hearings and who will be present when the ship’s black box is analyzed. But outside the theater, lawyers and survivors held court on their own with the abundant press. “For the memory of those who lost their lives, we all need to understand who is ultimately responsible for nearly killing us all,” Sergio Amarotto, a 67-year-old lifeguard who escaped the Concordia with his wife and cousins, told The Daily Beast. “It was such a surreal experience that night, and I will remember it for the rest of my life. I can still see the darkness when the ship went down. The only lights were from the rescue helicopters and the stars above.”

No one has been officially charged with any crimes yet, but Schettino is under house arrest and both he and Ambrosio are under investigation for manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, and for not alerting coastal authorities on land about the disaster. Schettino also faces charges for abandoning the ship and for destroying a natural habitat because the island of Giglio, where the ship’s contents are now literally rotting in the pristine sea, is part of a protected archipelago.

Seven others, including officers who were on the bridge at the time of the accident and Costa Cruiseline management members in Genova who were on the phone with Schettino just moments after the crash, face similar charges. Many lawyers think that Pier Luigi Foschi, the CEO of Costa Cruiseline, should also be investigated. “Schettino may have made the mistakes and errors of judgment, but his company fostered an environment where he felt he was able to do that,” said Francesco Compagna, a lawyer representing a dozen passengers and crew.

“He was in a state of denial, and he was also asking us to lie about the gravity of the situation.”

One of Compagna’s passengers is a young Russian woman who was an entertainer on the ship and who tripped and fell trying to escape. She slid down the length of the hull, and was severely disfigured when her nose was nearly ripped from her face. She also suffered chest injuries. Still, in the absence of any lifeboat to save her, she swam to shore, her lawyer said. “She is only 25, and her life is literally and figuratively scarred by these mistakes. Justice for her is not going to be just getting a payout or sending the captain to jail.”

Saturday’s hearing was just the preliminary step in a case that may take years to resolve. Once the preliminary investigatory phase is over, the actual trial could take up to a year or more to begin, though most lawyers for the passengers predict the captain will take a fast-track trial that could wrap up in just a few months. Giulia Bongiorno, who was instrumental in overturning the murder convictions of Seattle native Amanda Knox and her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito in Perugia last year, is representing 67 Italian and German survivors. She wants the investigation and trial to be as thorough as possible and include as many parties as necessary. “It is imperative that we find the real truth about just who caused this accident to happen,” she said outside of court. “That truth may lead all the way to Carnival in Florida.”

Meanwhile, the lifeless shell of the Concordia is a rusting eyesore on the rocks off the coast of Giglio. By mid-March the ship’s fuel will be completely removed, after which Costa Cruiselines promises it will name a salvage company that will begin the very complicated process of removing a heavily damaged vessel. There are a dozen companies bidding on the salvage operation, which could be done by either dissecting the ship and removing the pieces on heavy barges or dislodging the giant boulder from its hull and floating it on giant balloons to the mainland.

Meanwhile, the families of the missing are still waiting in agony for news, now more than six weeks after the accident. So far 25 bodies have been removed from the wreckage. Seven people are still unaccounted for, and seven of the retrieved corpses have not yet been positively identified because of a yet-unexplained order last week that temporarily halted DNA identification of the remains. For those families, the process of closure is far removed from the judicial process in Grosseto.

“Their wait is endless,” said Amoratto the lifeguard. “We will make sure their loved ones didn’t die in vain. We are here for their truth.”