Described by one lawyer Monday as looking "like he walked straight out of a GQ magazine," the ex-captain of a shipwrecked cruise liner faced about a dozen of the survivors he's accused of abandoning.
It was the first time Francesco Schettino, 52, had faced survivors since the luxury ship Costa Concordia ran aground in January, killing at least 32 people.
Schettino, 52, wore a black suit and tie at the preliminary hearing, which was held inside a theater in the Tuscan town of Grosseto. Accompanied by lawyers and technical consultants working on his behalf, the embattled former captain arrived 20 minutes early.
"He looked like he walked straight out of a GQ magazine," said John Arthur Eaves, an American lawyer who is representing 150 of the passengers.
Schettino faces allegations of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, abandoning ship, failing to report an accident to the coast guard and destroying a natural habitat. The ship, carrying 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew members, turned on its side after striking rocks off the Italian island of Giglio on January 13.
According to passengers' accounts, chaos ensued on the night of the shipwreck, as guests rushed to fill lifeboats and escape. Some crew members helped passengers and then jumped overboard, passengers said; remaining crew members seemed helpless to handle the melee.
Like all preliminary hearings in Italian courts, Monday's hearing was closed to the news media. But eventually, reports about the hearing made their way out of the theater.
One survivor approached Schettino at the hearing, saying he hoped the "truth would come out soon." The captain shook the man's hand and replied, "Yes, the truth must be ascertained," Italian media reported.
During the hearing, Schettino was seated on the theater stage with eight other defendants under investigation in the case, including his second in command, Ciro Ambrosio, officer Salvatore Ursino and Roberto Ferrarini, the head of the Costa Cruises fleet.
Also in attendance were about 12 former passengers, some of whom contributed to the theatrical theme outside the hall, known as Teatro Moderno. Passengers turned the area around the theater into a stage for impromptu news conferences for an international group of about 150 journalists.
Several German passengers said German newspapers had flown them to Grosseto.
Dozens of police patrolled the area. Schettino's lawyer, Paolo Bastianini, told CNN his client had received death threats.
The case centers on several questions, including why it allegedly took Schettino more than an hour to issue an order to abandon ship and why he allegedly left the vessel before all passengers had abandoned it.
Retired Capt. Fredrik J. van Wijnen, a friend of Schettino's and a representative of the Confederation of European Shipmasters' Associations, told reporters that Schettino felt terrible for the loss of life.
Though the captain made a mistake by coming too close to Giglio, his maneuvers after the accident saved thousands of lives, van Wijnen told CNN.
Schettino, who was released from house arrest in July, was fired last week by the Costa Crociere parent company, Italy's official ANSA news agency reported.
He has said that he was wrongfully fired and that his actions prevented additional deaths.
During the hearing, which is expected to last up to 10 days, a judge is expected to determine what evidence is admissible for an eventual trial, including the on-board ship data recorder.
An attorney for Schettino raised objections about an expert and asked that the inquiry be extended while he was brought in from Jakarta, but the request was denied.
Efforts to secure the wreckage are expected to be completed within 10 days, ANSA reported.