A Moldovan dancer who had been on the bridge of the Costa Concordia cruise ship when it crashed into a reef off Italy electrified the captain's manslaughter trial by testifying reluctantly that the two were lovers.
Domnica Cemortan, 26, only made the admission after being warned by the judge that she risked criminal charges if she didn't answer the question.
The ship's former captain, Francesco Schettino, is the sole defendant on trial in the Tuscan town of Grosseto. He is charged with manslaughter for the 32 people who died in the crash, with causing the shipwreck on the night of January 13, 2012, and with abandoning ship while many passengers and crew were still aboard. He risks 20 years in jail if convicted.
Earlier in the day, ship maître d' Antonello Tievoli testified that 10 days before the crash, he had asked Schettino for a favour: Would the captain sail close to the island of Giglio during the Mediterranean cruise because the crewman's family lived there?
Heads in the courtroom turned when Cemortan strode in wearing high-heeled pumps and a figure-hugging black top and skirt. She was questioned both by prosecutors and lawyers for the survivors who have attached civil suits to the manslaughter trial.
Testifying through a translator, Cemortan said she had worked on the Concordia for three weeks in December 2011. She then re-boarded the ship in January 2012 as a non-paying passenger several hours before the crash near Giglio.
"When you are someone's lover no one asks you for any explanations" about not having a ticket, she told the court.
Some in the courtroom gasped at the bold remark. Cemortan insisted her comment was a joke, but the judge made it part of the trial record.
As she testified, Schettino, who is married, sat at the defence table making a series of classic Italian hand gestures indicating incredulity.
Cemortan repeatedly declined to answer whether she is or had been romantically involved with Schettino, relenting only after Judge Giovanni Puliatti warned her that she risked criminal charges.
Tievoli, the maitre'd, said on January 6, 2012, exactly a week before the collision, the cruise ship sailed closer than usual to Giglio and he thanked Schettino for the courtesy. Still, Tievoli recalled that Schettino was disappointed with that route and ordered his No. 2 officer to devise an even closer approach to the tiny island the following fateful week.
When the Concordia rammed into the reef the night of January 13, gashing its hull and quickly taking on water, many of the passengers were enjoying a gala supper. Cemortan said she had dined at the captain's table with him, and he told crew to slow down the ship so he could have dessert before taking the helm near Giglio.
They both were on the bridge at the time of the crash. After it, Cemortan testified that she dashed into Schettino's private cabin to change out of her dinner outfit into more practical clothes. She noticed his laptop in the room and took it because she thought it was important. She said she gave it to him when she saw him on Giglio before dawn, after they both had taken separate lifeboats to the island.
Cemortan told the court Schettino told her immediately after the crash to take good care of a high-ranking crew member who is the brother of the former director-general of Costa Crociere SpA, the Italian cruise line.
She testified that the crew member, Ciro Onorato, pushed her onto a lifeboat. Because of the confusion and the darkness on the moonless night, she said she couldn't say if any passengers were still aboard the ship when she left the Concordia.
Hours after Schettino left aboard a lifeboat and was spotted on Giglio, Italian rescue helicopters plucked many survivors from the capsized ship. Many other passengers jumped into the sea to try to swim to Giglio and some drowned.
Cemortan said she and others aboard her lifeboat pulled several people out of the water.
Cemortan is among those seeking damages from the captain.
"Today I died a second tim," she told reporters outside the court, contending that she had suffered psychological trauma due to the shipwreck.
Last month, a spectacular maritime salvage operation righted the Concordia after 20 months of lying half-submerged on its side off the port of Giglio. The ship will eventually be towed away and broken up for scrap.