GROSSETO, Italy -- The first hearing of the criminal investigation into the Costa Concordia's shipwreck was held in a theater Saturday instead of a courthouse because of high demand, with angry survivors seeking compensation, justice and the truth.
The judge at the hearing assigned four experts to analyze the cruise ship's data recorder and ordered them to report their findings in July, confirming predictions by Prosecutor Francesco Verusio that examination of the data, as well as of conversations involving officers on the ship's bridge, could take months.
Prosecutors must decide whether to seek a trial against the captain, other top officers and officials of Italian cruise company Costa Crociere SpA, which is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp. Crucial to their decision could be what the experts determine are such details as the Concordia's velocity when it slammed into a reef the night of Jan. 13 off Giglio island, its exact route and what commands were given by whom and when.
Participants acknowledged that the search for truth and justice will be a long one.
"Today is just the beginning," said Francesco Compagna, a lawyer for some passengers and an injured Russian crew member, Irina Nazarova. "It is the first day. We don't expect quick things but we think that the investigation must follow in all the directions," said the lawyer.
The shipwreck killed 25 people, and seven other are missing and presumed dead. Captain Francesco Schettino is accused of abandoning ship while many of the 4,200 passengers and crew were still aboard during a confused evacuation.
Prosecutors say the captain steered the ship too close to the island to show off the vessel to islanders in a publicity stunt.
Survivor Sergio Ammarota, among those who entered the hearing, said he wanted to know "exactly how it (the crash) happened and why the captain ... could have carried out such a maneuver."
Compagna added that lawyers are trying to determine "that it was not the first time that the Costa boats used to go very close to the island."
Schettino has claimed that the reef, which appears on many tourist maps, wasn't on his navigational charts. Schettino is also accused of abandoning ship while many passengers and crew were still aboard, and struggling to escape. Some of the passengers and crew jumped into the water and swam to shore after the Concordia's tilt made it impossible to lower all the life boats.
Four experts were appointed by the court to examine the data recorder. Lawyers emerging from the theater at the end of the daylong hearing, which was closed to the general public and journalists, said the judge ordered the experts to present their findings at a hearing on July 21.
Costa Crociere has distanced itself from Schettino, contending that he made an "unauthorized" maneuver that took him perilously too close to the island. It has said that only once, in August, was the cruise ship allowed to sail close to Giglio, because of a special occasion on the island.
A lawyer for Schettino – who is accused of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship – slipped into the theater through a backdoor. Schettino, who is under house arrest in his home near Naples, denies wrongdoing and didn't attend the hearing.
Schettino's lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, later told reporters that the captain expects that the black box exam will "further confirm what he already told investigators."
Italian law allows injured parties to attach civil suits to criminal cases, and at least some of the survivors or lawyers or relatives of the victims who came to the hearing are pressing requests for compensation.
"The compensation that has been proposed to our clients absolutely is not in line with the damage suffered," lawyer Michelina Suriano said. The Italian news agency LaPresse quoted Suriano as saying her clients were offered (EURO)11,000 (about $15,000) by the cruise company.
Much of Saturday's hearing was devoted to just who will allowed by the court to attach lawsuits to the case.
Among those rebuffed were residents of Giglio, an island that lives off tourism and where the wreck of the Concordia still rests on a rocky stretch of sea bed just outside the main port. Their lawyer, Pier Paolo Lucchesi, said the decision by Judge Valeria Montesarchio was tantamount to dividing injured parties "into major league and minor league."
Environmental groups were among others that were excluded. So far no major oil spill from the wreck has occurred, but there are fears the wreckage, with its refuse and other contents, will spoil the pristine waters off Giglio, which host dolphins, wheels and other sea life.
The conversations among Schettino and his officers, and with Italian coast guard officials, are crucial in determining what happened, and why the captain initially told the coast guard there was a blackout aboard, but didn't mention the collision.
Some conversations have already been made public, including one played on Italian TV in which a coast guard official based in Livorno, on the mainland, in a phone call repeatedly orders a reluctant Schettino to get back on his ship and direct the evacuation and rescue efforts.
Giulia Bongiorno, a lawyer for some of the passengers, said she would press the court to order analyze of recorded conversations from the time the Concordia left the port of Civitavecchia a few hours before the collision and not just immediately before and following the accident and evacuation.
She also is seeking examination of recorded conversation between the captain and his officers on the bridge and the engine room.
Among those present Saturday was the Italian cruise company itself. "We are an injured party, we lost a ship," Marco De Luca, a lawyer for Costa Crociere contended.
Another lawyer representing passengers – Giuseppe Grammatico – is also a survivor. Grammatico told reporters that some passengers, including himself, seized the initiative to be evacuated, because orders weren't forthcoming from the ship's officials.
"Just think, our lifeboat was lowered into the water because we insisted that it be done without an order from the captain," Grammatico said.
Relatives of some of the missing, including Frenchwoman Mylene Litzler, were among those attending the hearing.
Costa Crociere again came under the spotlight earlier in the week when a fire broke out in the generator room of the Costa Allegra, leaving the cruise ship without power and adrift in waters known to be prowled by pirates in the Indian Ocean. The ship arrived in the Seychelles after three days under tow. There were no injuries.
"I can understand the Costa Allegra's fire," angry Concordia survivor Patrizia Bagnasco, who came to the hearing, said. "But for the Concordia, we're talking about an unexplainable human error," LaPresse quoted her as saying.
Meanwhile, in the waters off Giglio Saturday, work was begun to make an opening in the wreckage to allow a salvage crew to enter the engine room and empty the tanks holding the last fuel still inside the ship, authorities said.
Italian navy divers finished inspecting elevators in the forward part of the ship, as well as the Concordia's theater and some lodging areas for the ship's crew, but the search yielded no bodies, the agency said.
Frances D'Emilio reported from Rome.