How the Costa Concordia wreck changed an Italian island

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GIGLIO PORTO, Italy – The curving granite cliffs of the Tuscan island of Giglio lay bare in the winter sun, no longer hidden by the ominous, wrecked cruise ship that ran aground in the turquoise waters of this marine reserve a decade ago.

Few of the fishing village’s 500 or so residents will ever forget the freezing night of January 13, 2012, when the Costa Concordia shipwrecked, killing 32 and turning life on the island upside down for years.

“Every one of us here has a tragic memory from back then,” said Mario Pellegrini, 59, who was deputy mayor in 2012 and became the first civilian to climb onto the cruiser after hitting the rocks near the lighthouses at the port entrance.

The hospitality of the sworn islanders made itself felt, first to provide basic assistance to the 4,229 passengers and crew who had to be evacuated from a skyscraper-high tilting ship. In no time, Giglio residents were hosting thousands of journalists, law enforcement officials and rescue professionals who flocked to the port. Over the coming months, salvage teams set up camp in the scenic harbor to work to safely remove the ship, an operation that took more than two years.

The people of Giglio felt like family to those who spent long days in their port waiting for news of loved ones whose bodies remained trapped on the ship. On Thursday, 10 years after the day of the tragedy, the families of the victims, some passengers and Italian authorities attended a memorial mass and threw a crown of flowers on the waters where the Costa Concordia landed. At 9:45 p.m., as the ship ran aground, a candlelit procession lit up the harbor quay while church bells rang and ship’s sirens wailed.

What strikes many now is how the wreck forever changed the lives of some of those whose paths it crossed. Friendships were made, business relationships took shape and even new families were started.

“It feels as if, since that tragic night, everyone’s lives have been forever connected by an invisible thread,” said Luana Gervasi, the niece of one of the castaways, at Thursday’s mass, 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 to play football for the community team is playing with all the top teams in the industry to enter the Champions League.”

For his work, Mr. Dietrich had to buy a lot of boat repair material in the city’s only hardware store. 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 to us,” said Bruna Danei, 42, who worked as a secretary for the consortium that recovered the wreck until 2018. “Working on the Costa Concordia has been a life-changing experience for me in so many ways.”

On the wall of the living room, where her 22-month-old daughter Arianna played, hung a depiction of the Costa Concordia, used by salvage teams to plan their recovery.

“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 arrived on the island in May 2012 to help with the Helping correct the Costa Concordia – and who is also Arianna’s father.

From a barge, Mr. Cedioli oversaw the unprecedented salvage operation that allowed the 951-foot vessel, which was partially smashed against the rocks, to be rotated from the seabed to an upright position in less than a day without further endangering the underwater ecosystem it was damaged when it ran aground.

“We jumped up and down for joy when the parbuckling was done,” recalled Mr. Cedioli. “We felt we brought some justice to this story. And I loved this little community and life on the island.”

The local council voted to make January 13 a day of remembrance for Giglio, but after this year it will stop public commemorations and “make it a more intimate moment away from the media,” Mr Ortelli said during the fair.

“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 recovered from under the furniture in a cabin three years after the shipwreck while the ship was standing upright and being dismantled in Genoa.

“First of all, I feel close to my brother here,” said Kevin Rebello. “But it’s also kind of a family reunion for me – I couldn’t wait to see the people of Giglio.”

Mr. Rebello hugged and greeted residents on the streets of the port area and recalled how people there had shown him affection, bought him coffee and simply shown respect for his grief.

“Other victims’ families think differently, but I’m a Catholic and I have forgiven,” Mr Rebello said.

The Costa Concordia accident caused national shame when it became clear that the liner’s commander, Francesco Schettino, had not immediately sounded the general alarm and coordinated the evacuation, and had instead abandoned the sinking ship.

“Get back on board!” A Coast Guard officer yelled at Mr Schettino as he understood the captain was sitting in a lifeboat watching people rush to escape, audio recordings of their exchange later revealed. “Go to 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 manslaughter and for abandoning ship before the evacuation was complete. Other officers and crew members advocated lighter penalties.

During the trial, Mr. Schettino admitted that he had committed “imprudence” in deciding to sail at high speed near the island of Giglio to greet the family of the ship’s head waiter. The impact on the half-submerged rocks near the island caused a rupture in the hull more than 70 meters (230 ft) long, causing onboard power failures and flooding of the lower decks.

Mr. Schettino attempted to steer the cruiser to port to facilitate the evacuation, but the ship spiraled out of control and began to capsize as it neared port, rendering many lifeboats useless.

“I can’t forget the eyes of the scared children and their parents,” said Mr Pellegrini, who had boarded the ship to speak to officials and organize the evacuation. “The metallic sound of the gigantic ship toppling over and the gurgle of the sea through the cruiser’s endless corridors.”

Sergio Ortelli, who is still mayor of Giglio ten years later, was similarly moved. “No one can go back and undo the senseless deaths of innocent people or the grief of their families,” he said. “The tragedy will always accompany us as a community. It was an apocalypse for us.”

But Mr. Ortelli said the accident also told another story, that of the skilled rescuers who managed to save thousands of lives and the engineers who righted the liner, refloated it and took it to the scrapyard.

As global attention shifted away from Giglio, residents stayed in touch with the outside world through the people who lived there temporarily.

For months Rev. Lorenzo Pasquotti, then pastor in Giglio, kept receiving packages returned by courier: dry-cleaned slippers, sweaters and tablecloths that were handed over to the freezing, stranded passengers in his church that night.

One summer Father Pasquotti was eating German biscuits with a German couple who were passengers on the ship. They still remembered the hot tea and the remains of Christmas treats they got that evening.

“So many nationalities – the world was suddenly at our door,” he recalled that night. “And of course we opened it.”

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