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Italy court weighing possible indictments against captain, crew in 2012 Costa Concordia wreck

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GROSSETO, Italy - An Italian court opened a hearing Monday into whether to hand down indictments against the captain and some crew of the Costa Concordia cruise ship for the 2012 grounding off Tuscany that killed 32 people.

Prosecutors want Capt. Francesco Schettino to stand trial for alleged manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship before all the 4,200 passengers and crew had been evacuated. They want four other crew members and a Costa manager on land to face charges of having botched the emergency.

Schettino made no comment as he arrived for the preliminary, closed-door hearing in the Tuscan city of Grosseto, where a theatre has been converted into a courtroom to accommodate all the civil parties to the case.

A decision on the indictment wasn't expected Monday, lawyers said, as the session was expected to be devoted to technical matters that also involved the hundreds of passengers seeking damages due to their injuries, trauma and losses.

Schettino ordered the ship taken off course Jan. 13, 2012, to bring it closer to the island of Giglio as a favour to friends. But the ship rammed into a reef off the island, leaving a 70-meter (230-foot) gash in the hull and causing the liner to take on water and capsize. Passengers recounted a harrowing and delayed evacuation: by the time Schettino ordered passengers to evacuate, the ship was listing so far to one side that many lifeboats couldn't be lowered.

Schettino has defended his actions that night, saying he saved lives by bringing the hobbled ship closer to port and that the reef wasn't on his nautical charts.

His first officer on duty on the bridge at the time of the collision, Ciro Ambrosino, is one of the four crew accused of wrongdoing. On Monday, his attorney Salvatore Catalano, said his client was "shocked and still suffering" from what transpired.

"But from the point of view of responsibility, I can absolutely exclude that Ciro Ambrosio is responsible," Catalano said.

Lawyers representing hundreds of victims were on hand for the hearing to make the case for compensation from Costa Crociere SpA well beyond what the company, a division of Miami-based Carnival Corp., offered in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Two weeks after the capsizing, Costa offered passengers 11,000 euro ($14,460) plus reimbursement for the costs of their cruises and extra travel expenses.

"As far as we know, the latest negotiations reached 27,000 euros, as a last offer from Costa," said Massimiliano Gabrieli, who is representing several dozen Italian passengers who suffered mostly post-traumatic stress and slight injuries. "We will ask for 1 million euro ($1.3 million) of compensation for each passenger."

Costa attorney Marco De Luca said the request was ridiculous. "Why not 10 million euro? That wouldn't be bad," Luca said sarcastically as he arrived for the hearing. "There would be a run to get on board ships hoping for an accident."

Last week, a judge fined Costa 1 million euro in administrative sanctions under a plea bargain. Under Italian law, companies can face such sanctions when their employees commit crimes.

The Concordia remains on its side, grounded off Giglio's port. Officials are preparing the ship to be rolled upright and towed from the rocks to a port to be dismantled — an operation on a scale that has never before been attempted. The cost has swelled to 400 million euro.

The island of Giglio, a popular tourist spot famed for its clear waters, is among those seeking civil damages from Costa to compensate for lost revenue and the eyesore that has been on its horizon for over a year. Attorney Alessandro Maria Lecci said the island is seeking 80 million euro.

___

Winfield reported from Rome.

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