The captain of the stricken cruise liner Costa Concordia goes on trial, accused of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship before all the passengers were evacuated.

Costa Concordia (reuters)

The hearing, in the Tuscan town of Grosetto, is due to begin on Tuesday, although proceedings could be delayed for a week by a national lawyers' strike. Captain Francesco Schettino is charged with manslaughter, causing an environmental disaster and abandoning ship before the passengers were evacuated.

The Costa Concordia, twice the size of the Titanic and carrying 4,229 people on board, crashed into rocks off the island of Giglio in January last year, capsizing onto its side after a massive gash was ripped through its hull.

During the panicked night-time evacuation, 32 people lost their lives, leading to charges of safety breaches and cowardice by those in charge.

Dozens of survivors are suing the owners, Costa Crociere, along with the US parent company Carnival Corporation, for hundreds of millions of dollars. Four other crew members and a manager have agreed plea bargains.

Captain's orders

The trial will examine evidence from black box recordings taken from the ship moments before it struck the offshore reef. Laywers will focus on the orders given by Captain Schettino, and the contact he had with the coastguard and the company.

Schettino, who had altered his course so that he could carry out a sail-by salute, has been widely denigrated in the press, nicknamed "Captain Coward" and the "most hated man in Italy".

I'm living a deep torment for what happend the night of January 13. Captain Francesco Schettino

He has spoken only rarely about the incident, blaming fellow crew members and asking for forgiveness. In January this year, days before the anniversary of the tragedy, he told the La Stampa newspaper his life had become a "deep torment".

"I've been treated worse than (Osama) Bin Laden", he said, "while my regret for what happened is enormous. I reject the image that has been attached to myself, it ridicules not only 30 years of my work, but my experience worldwide".

And he added that he thought of the victims all the time. "I'm living a deep torment for what happened the night of 13 January. It is a sincere and deep pain, from within the heart."

Character questions

Local residents in his home town of Meta on the Amalfi coast have voiced some concerns, calling him a risk taker who sometimes liked to show off. However colleagues said he had always proved to be a very "serious, reliable and well trained" member of the team.

And the Italian consumer group Codacons, which has launched one of the class action suits against the cruise company, claimed key equipment on board had malfunctioned.

They alleged the ship had been sailing with electrical problems for several days, the main doors were not closed properly, and the crew were using unauthorised charts.

The wreck of the cruise liner is still beached off Giglio, and has become something of a ghoulish tourist attraction, while efforts to tow it ashore have been hampered by poor weather.

Engineers are trying to build an artificial sea bed beneath the 950ft long ship as part of the unprecedented salvage operation, which has been put on hold until the autumn to avoid disrupting the busy holiday period.

Captain Schettino, who says he does not feel like he has "committed a crime", could face up to 20 years in jail if he is found guilty.

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