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Italy cruise ship captain faces hearing over house arrest

From Livia Borghese, for CNN
updated 10:39 AM EST, Mon February 6, 2012
Captain of the Costa Concordia cruise liner Francesco Schettino is escorted by an Italian policeman in Grosseto earlier this year
Captain of the Costa Concordia cruise liner Francesco Schettino is escorted by an Italian policeman in Grosseto earlier this year
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Schettino faces possible charges of manslaughter, shipwreck and abandoning ship
  • 16 people are dead, 16 others missing after Costa Concordia hit rocks on January 13
  • Schettino told court officials he was helping with lifeboats and realized he was off the ship
  • Reports: The captain told a friend he was pressured to steer toward an island

Florence, Italy (CNN) -- The captain of the shipwrecked cruise liner Costa Concordia faced a closed-door hearing Monday over whether he should remain under house arrest.

Francesco Schettino faces possible charges of manslaughter, shipwreck and abandoning ship after the vessel struck rocks and rolled onto its side in the waters off the Italian island of Giglio on January 13. Sixteen bodies have been recovered, and 16 people remain missing from the roughly 4,200 people who were aboard the cruise liner.

One of Schettino's lawyers, Salvatore Parascandola, said the defense team was "optimistic" that he would be freed from house arrest.

"We don't think that any of the (justifications) for Schettino's house arrest are valid. He is not going to escape or to repeat the crime," Parascandola said.

Prosecutor Stefano Pizza did not speak to reporters as he entered or left the court. Prosecutors want Schettino's house arrest revoked and the captain sent back to jail to await trial.

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By law, the three-judge panel has three days to reach a verdict on house arrest.

In his answers to prosecutors, defense attorneys and a judge investigating the case last month, Schettino admitted he made a "mistake" in striking the rocks.

"I hit this projection of rock that seems almost stuck into the ship, but this was my mistake," Schettino said, according to a 126-page transcript. "... There isn't anything I can say, as I was convinced that passing within .28 of a mile there wouldn't be any problem."

The captain also brushed aside suggestions that at 15 knots, he was going too fast, as alleged by prosecutors.

"There isn't a speed limit," he said. "... We had more or less the speed needed to reach Savona on time."

According to the transcript, Schettino said he ran the ship aground to keep it from sinking. "This is what allowed me to limit the tilting," he said.

Maritime lawyer Jim Allsworth said the maneuver is "fairly standard" in the case of a ship taking on water and in danger of sinking or capsizing. "The best thing to do is to put it aground to stop it sinking."

But in statements made during a phone conversation with a friend, Schettino said managers pressured him to steer the ship to the area where the collision occurred, two Italian newspapers reported Wednesday.

La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera published excerpts from a telephone conversation Schettino had with a friend after his January 14 arrest.

The captain called his friend from the prosecutor's office, and authorities tapped the phone, the newspapers said.

"In my place, someone else wouldn't have been so benevolent to have gone right under there, because they have pissed me off, go, go there," Schettino said, in an apparent reference to getting close to the island, according to the newspapers. "The shallows were there, but it wasn't signaled by the instruments that I had, and I went through ... in order to follow what the managers wanted."

Schettino attorney Alessandro Antichi confirmed the wiretap but would not comment on the conversation. The information should not have been published, he said, as it is part of the investigation.

The man behind the steering wheel, Jacob Rusli Bin, told investigators that after the ship struck the rocks, Schettino cursed and said he had not seen them, La Repubblica reported.

I hit this projection of rock that seems almost stuck into the ship, but this was my mistake
Francesco Schettino, captain of the Costa Concordia cruise ship

Both Costa Cruises and authorities have criticized Schettino's behavior.

Costa cannot conduct an independent investigation because prosecutors seized the ship's data recorder. The recorder had some connection problems but is working, Costa chief executive Per Luigi Foschi has said. It contains conversation recordings and navigation system data, he said.

Cruise ship passengers described a scene of panic and confusion as they rushed for lifeboats. Some said the crew seemed overwhelmed and did not have accurate information on what was taking place.

In the transcript, Schettino also described the chaos, saying that he helped passengers onto lifeboats and that some became stuck because of the angle of the listing ship. He said he was trying to launch a lifeboat when he realized he was no longer on board.

"I was then on the lifeboat. It isn't as if I had boarded it," he said. "Look, I fell on its roof."

However, in the wiretapped conversation, Schettino told the friend, "When I understood that the ship was tilting, I decided to leave, and left," according to Corriere della Sera.

A captain's leaving the ship with passengers still aboard is difficult to defend, said Italian criminal defense attorney Ugo Meucci, who does not represent Schettino.

"This is a very difficult position because our law is very strong, and the risk is very high for the captain," who could face a 15-year jail sentence, Meucci said.

CNN's Dan Rivers and Hada Messia in Rome contributed to this report.

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