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Costa Concordia accident witnesses testify at captain's trial

By Barbie Latza Nadeau, Hada Messia and Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 0636 GMT (1436 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Prosecution witnesses describe chaos aboard the Costa Concordia after it hit rocks
  • Crew member Ciro Onorato says he was disappointed by captain's handling of crisis
  • Ship's head waiter says the captain invited him to the bridge to see Giglio Island close-up
  • Capt. Francesco Schettino is accused of manslaughter; he says his actions saved lives

Rome (CNN) -- Prosecution witnesses at the trial of Capt. Francesco Schettino painted a picture of chaos aboard the Costa Concordia on the night the cruise liner sank, as they testified Tuesday in Italy.

The cruise liner capsized after it struck rocks off Italy's Giglio Island in the Tyrrhenian Sea in January 2012, killing 32 of the 4,200 people on board.

INTERACTIVE: How ill-fated cruise liner was raised from Italian seabed

Schettino faces charges of manslaughter, causing a maritime disaster and abandoning ship with passengers still on board. He denies wrongdoing.

Costa Concordia captain's guest to testify
Remains found on the Costa Concordia
The refloated wreck of the Costa Concordia is towed to the Italian port of Genoa on Sunday, July 27, to be scrapped, ending the ship's final journey two and a half years after it capsized at a cost of 32 lives. The refloated wreck of the Costa Concordia is towed to the Italian port of Genoa on Sunday, July 27, to be scrapped, ending the ship's final journey two and a half years after it capsized at a cost of 32 lives.
The Costa Concordia disaster
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Photos: The Costa Concordia disaster Photos: The Costa Concordia disaster
Captain blames faulty ship

Among several key witnesses Tuesday, on the second day of prosecution testimony against Schettino, was Moldovan dancer Domnica Cemortan, who dined with the captain and was with him on the command bridge at the time of the accident.

Cemortan, who boarded the ship as a passenger but had worked on another Costa Cruises ship captained by Schettino a few weeks earlier, conceded under questioning that she had been romantically involved with him.

Everything seemed normal at first on the bridge, she told the court, but then she heard Schettino giving orders, and then "speaking angrily, yelling, to another officer" and telling him to obey the order.

She heard the alarms go off on the bridge, triggering chaos and confusion. She heard a call from the engine room that "water had entered the ship."

The dancer left the bridge with Schettino and crew member Ciro Onorato, she said, following them around the vessel because she wasn't sure where they were going. They ended up near some lifeboats, where "it was very slippery," she said.

She and Onorato helped other passengers for about half an hour while the captain returned to the bridge, she said. Then Onorato pulled her into a lifeboat that also held other crew members. The boat hung over the side, and some panicked passengers fell into the water, she said.

Cemortan said she has suffered psychological issues and taken medication to deal with the mass media attention after the wreck. She is also a party to the civil case against the captain.

Disappointed by captain's actions

Onorato, who had dined with the pair, earlier told the court he was disappointed by Schettino's handling of events during and after the accident.

Under cross-examination, Onorato was quizzed about Schettino's movements around the cruise liner and about how they both came to leave the ship.

Onorato gave the same account as Schettino has given -- that the ship was falling on top of them and that they had no choice but to "fall" into a lifeboat.

The defense also asked about Schettino's demeanor when he saw him on shore and whether or not the captain was trying to get back to the ship.

READ: Costa Concordia: Has master mariner in charge of salvage met his match?

The prosecution also focused on why Schettino decided to sail so close to the island's rocky coastline.

Another witness, ship's maitre d' Antonello Tievoli, a Giglio resident, said he had asked the captain to do the "flyby" a week earlier -- and he acknowledged feeling guilty about having done so.

He testified that Schettino had told him that he was going to do a "close passage to the island" on the day of the crash, and that the captain had invited him on to the bridge so he could see it.

Tievoli messaged his sister on Facebook to tell her the ship would be passing by moments before the accident. He was planning to point out where his house was on Giglio to Schettino and other guests on the bridge.

READ: Costa Concordia salvage: Island celebrations and relief

'It is going to end up in the rocks'

Schettino asked him to call a retired Costa Cruises captain, Mario Palombo, who lived on Giglio to say they'd be passing close by, Tievoli said. Palombo was not on the island that night, but he and Schettino spoke by telephone.

Tievoli told the court that he had done previous "close passages to the island," but none that close.

Schettino had to ask the Costa Cruises company before changing his route and had done so before on a previous voyage, Cemortan said.

Palombo, who took the stand after Cemortan, described Schettino as insincere and always hiding the truth, adding that he did not respect him.

The retired captain said he had been surprised to get a call from Tievoli and then Schettino that evening because it was winter, so there were few people on Giglio to see the "salute," or close passage to the shore. Schettino had asked him on the call about the waters around the island, he said.

Palombo said a friend had then rung him, who said, "I saw a ship passing by so close, it is going to end up in the rocks ... I've never seen a ship passing by so close. The lights are off."

Palombo said there was no set procedure for doing a "salute" and that the cruise line had never asked him to do one to publicize the brand.

He'd done them only for his own sense of pride and seamanship, he said -- and always in summer and never with any "risky maneuvers."

Plates, glasses flying

Tievoli testified that after the ship hit the rocks and alarms started blaring, he ran down to the restaurant to check the situation. He found a scene of chaos -- terrified passengers, with plates, food and glasses on the floor as the ship listed.

The maitre d' told the court he left panicked elderly passengers in safe places where they wouldn't be hit by flying plates.

He heard a message from the loudspeakers that the ship was suffering a blackout but did not hear the coded message for crew members only to prepare for emergency, Tievoli said.

Once the general alarm was sounded, he and other crew members started preparing lifeboats so those on board could abandon ship, he said. He described lifting a man on crutches onto his back to carry him to safety.

READ: Costa Concordia underwater: What's inside of wrecked cruise ship?

Questioned by the defense, the maitre d' said he'd crawled down a ladder to jump on the roof of a lifeboat on the ship's upright side.

Tievoli said he met the island's deputy mayor climbing onto the ship to save passengers, which could undermine Schettino's argument that he could not get back on board after "falling" into the lifeboat.

Hero or villain?

The trial is expected to last through the fall with a string of witnesses, including passengers, crew members and islanders, who say they saw the captain on shore looking for dry socks before all the passengers had been safely evacuated.

Schettino argues that he is a hero who saved the lives of more than 4,000 people, not a villain whose negligence led to the deaths of 32. His defense is trying to prove, among other things, that the ship's watertight doors did not function properly, and that is the reason the ship sank, leading to all 32 deaths during evacuation.

The captain also has told the court that the ship would not have crashed had his helmsman turned it in the direction that Schettino told him to 13 seconds before impact.

The helmsman, Jacob Rusli Bin, and four others were convicted in a plea deal in July for their role in the disaster. A Florence court is considering the validity of those plea bargain agreements.

CNN's Hada Messia and journalist Barbie Latza Nadeau reported from Rome. CNN's Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London.

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