The former captain of the Costa Concordia cruise ship told an Italian court on Tuesday that he was trying to impress colleagues and passengers when he accidentally steered the vessel into rocks on the Tuscan island of Giglio in January 2012.
But Francesco Schettino denied he was showing off to a Moldovan dancer whom he had invited onto the bridge to watch as he tried a "salute" to the island by sailing within yards of its rocky reef.
The dancer, Domnica Cemortan, 27, who worked on board the ship, has previously said she was having an affair with the married captain.
After rocks tore a huge rent in the Costa Concordia, the ship flooded, lost power and grounded in shallow water on Giglio, slowly keeling over as the 4,200 passengers on board crowded into lifeboats or tried to swim ashore. Thirty-two people drowned, some sucked to their deaths as the 950-foot-long ship rolled in the water.
Schettino, 54, who left the ship on a lifeboat while passengers were still on board, is standing trial in the Tuscan coastal city of Grosseto, charged with manslaughter and abandoning ship. The prosecutor has said he will seek a sentence of more than 20 years in prison.
Taking the stand for the first time Tuesday in the local theater that has been converted into a courtroom to accommodate witnesses, Schettino gave a spirited performance, gesticulating constantly, interrupting the prosecutor and slipping into his native Neapolitan dialect as he was questioned.
Schettino sought to share blame for the crash with officials under his command who were at the helm as he dined with Cemortan in a ship's restaurant on the night of Jan. 13, 2012.
Entering the bridge nine minutes before the impact, Schettino said he only assumed full command of the vessel about four minutes later, by which time the vessel was dangerously close to the rocks.
Other officials on the bridge have already agreed to plea bargains, leaving Schettino facing trial alone. The captain's second in command, Ciro Ambrosio, who handed the helm over to Schettino, received a sentence of one year, 11 months, in prison.
"What was revealed in court today was the cruise company's tragic inability to organize a chain of command," said Fabio Targa, a lawyer representing four survivors of the collision.
As the hearing progressed Tuesday, Schettino tried to convince the court that he had handled the evacuation of the vessel effectively, as tape recordings were played of telephone conversations during the evacuation in which Schettino appeared confused and stunned.
"I am trained to be lucid," he said.
Schettino has previously said he did not mean to leave the ship, but slipped and fell into a lifeboat as it left the ship. The widely ridiculed claim was undermined in court Tuesday when a video was shown of the evacuation showing Schettino queuing to board a lifeboat.
After being righted and refloated in a $1.86-billion salvage operation, the Costa Concordia was towed for scrapping to Genoa, where a final missing victim was discovered in a cabin last month.
Two California residents who survived the crash have sought to launch a civil lawsuit against the ship's U.S. parent company, Carnival.
But a California judge has declined to hear the case, recommending it be held in Italy.
"He ruled that it should take place in Italy because that is where the evidence is," said a spokesman for American lawyer John Eaves, who is representing the passengers.