How the Wreck of a Cruise Liner Changed an Italian Island
GIGLIO PORTO, Italy — The curvy granite rocks of the Tuscan island of Giglio lay bare in the winter sun, no longer hidden by the ominous, stricken cruise liner that ran aground in the turquoise waters of this marine sanctuary ten years ago.
Few of the 500-odd residents of the fishermen’s village will ever forget the freezing night of Jan. 13, 2012, when the Costa Concordia shipwrecked, killing 32 people and upending life on the island for years.
“Every one of us here has a tragic memory from then,” said Mario Pellegrini, 59, who was deputy mayor in 2012 and was the first civilian to climb onto the cruiser after it struck the rocks near the lighthouses at the port entrance.
The hospitality of the tight-knit community of islanders kicked in, at first to give basic assistance to the 4,229 passengers and crew members who had to be evacuated from a tilting vessel as high as a skyscraper. In no time, Giglio residents hosted thousands of journalists, law enforcement officers and rescue experts who descended on the port. In the months to come, salvage teams set up camp in the picturesque harbor to work on safely removing the ship, an operation that took more than two years to complete.
The people of Giglio felt like a family for those who spent long days at its port, waiting to receive word of their loved ones whose bodies remained trapped on the ship. On Thursday, 10 years to the day of the tragedy, the victims’ families, some passengers and Italian authorities attended a remembrance Mass and threw a crown of flowers onto the waters where the Costa Concordia had rested. At 9:45 p.m., the time when the ship ran aground, a candlelit procession illuminated the port’s quay while church bells rang and ship sirens blared.
What stands out now for many is how the wreck forever changed the lives of some of those whose paths crossed as a result. Friendships were made, business relations took shape and new families were even formed.
“It feels as if, since that tragic night, the lives of all the people involved were forever connected by an invisible thread,” Luana Gervasi, the niece of one of the shipwreck victims, said at the Mass on Thursday, her voice breaking.
Francesco Dietrich, 48, from the eastern city of Ancona, arrived on the island in February 2013 to work with the wreck divers, “a dream job,” he said, adding: “It was like offering someone who plays soccer for the parish team to join the Champions League with all the top teams in the business.”
For his work, Mr. Dietrich had to buy a lot of boat-repair supplies from the only hardware store in town. It was owned by a local family, and Mr. Dietrich now has a 6-year-old son, Pietro, with the family’s daughter.
“It was such a shock for us,” said Bruna Danei, 42, who until 2018 worked as a secretary for the consortium that salvaged the wreck. “The work on the Costa Concordia was a life-changing experience for me in many ways.”
A rendering of the Costa Concordia used by salvage teams to plan its recovery hung on the wall of the living room where her 22-month-old daughter, Arianna, played.
“She wouldn’t be here if Davide hadn’t come to work on the site,” Ms. Danei said, referring to Davide Cedioli, 52, an experienced diver from Turin who came to the island in May 2012 to help right the Costa Concordia — and who is also Arianna’s father.
From a barge, Mr. Cedioli monitored the unprecedented salvage operation that, in less than a day, was able to rotate the 951-foot vessel, partly smashed against the rocks, from the sea bottom to an upright position without further endangering the underwater ecosystem that it damaged when it ran aground.
“We jumped up and down in happiness when the parbuckling was completed,” Mr. Cedioli remembered. “We felt we were bringing some justice to this story. And I loved this small community and living on the island.”
The local council voted to make Jan. 13 a day of remembrance on Giglio, but after this year it will stop the public commemorations and “make it a more intimate moment, without the media,” Mr. Ortelli said during the mass.
“Being here ten years later brings back a lot of emotions,” said Kevin Rebello, 47, whose older brother, Russell, was a waiter on the Costa Concordia.
Russell Rebello’s remains were finally retrieved three years after the shipwreck, from under the furniture in a cabin, once the vessel was upright and being taken apart in Genoa.
“First, I feel close to my brother here,” Kevin Rebello said. “But it is also some sort of family reunion for me — I couldn’t wait to see the Giglio people.”
Mr. Rebello hugged and greeted residents on the streets of the port area, and recalled how the people there had shown affection for him at the time, buying him coffee and simply showing respect for his grief.
“Other victims’ families feel differently, but I am a Catholic and I have forgiven,” Mr. Rebello explained.
The Costa Concordia accident caused national shame when it became clear that the liner’s commander, Francesco Schettino, failed to immediately sound the general alarm and coordinate the evacuation, and instead abandoned the sinking vessel.
“Get back on board!” a Coast Guard officer shouted at Mr. Schettino when he understood that the captain was in a lifeboat watching people scramble to escape, audio recordings of their exchange later revealed. “Go up on the bow of the ship on a rope ladder, and tell me what you can do, how many people are there and what they need. Now!”
The officer has since pursued a successful career in politics, while Mr. Schettino is serving a 16-year sentence in a Roman prison for homicide and for abandoning the ship before the evacuation was completed. Other officials and crew members plea-bargained for lesser sentences.
During the trial, Mr. Schettino admitted that he had committed an “imprudence” when he decided to sail near the island of Giglio at high speed to greet the family of the ship’s headwaiter. The impact with the half-submerged rock near the island produced a gash in the hull more than 70 meters long, or about 76 yards, leading to blackouts on board and water pouring into the lower decks.
Mr. Schettino tried to steer the cruiser toward the port to make evacuation easier, but the vessel was out of control and began to tip as it neared the harbor, making many lifeboats useless.
“I can’t forget the eyes of children, scared to death, and of their parents,” said Mr. Pellegrini, who had boarded the ship to speak with officials and organize the evacuation. “The metallic sound of the enormous ship tipping over and the gurgling of the sea up the endless corridors of the cruiser.”
Sergio Ortelli, who is still the mayor of Giglio ten years later, was similarly moved. “Nobody can go back and cancel those senseless deaths of innocent people, or the grief of their families,” he said. “The tragedy will always stay with us as a community. It was an apocalypse for us.”
Yet Mr. Ortelli said that the accident also told a different story, that of the skilled rescuers who managed to save thousands of lives, and of the engineers who righted the liner, refloated it and took it to the scrapyard.
While the global attention shifted away from Giglio, residents have stayed in touch with the outside world through the people who temporarily lived there.
For months, the Rev. Lorenzo Pasquotti, who was then a pastor in Giglio, kept receiving packages: dry-cleaned slippers, sweaters and tablecloths that were given to the cold, stranded passengers in his church that night, returned via courier.
One summer, Father Pasquotti ate German cookies with a German couple who were passengers on the ship. They still remembered the hot tea and leftovers from Christmas delicacies that they were given that night.
“So many nationalities — the world was at our door all of a sudden,” he said, remembering that night. “And we naturally opened it.”