Sergio Ortelli, the mayor of the tiny, idyllic island of Giglio, about 12 miles off Italy’s Tuscany coast, has become a maritime salvage expert since the massive Costa Concordia cruiseliner crashed onto his island’s shores the night of January 13, 2012. The island’s permanent population is just under 900, and when the Concordia capsized with 4,229 passengers and crew on board, the wave of humanity that poured onto the island sent the residents into a state of shock they have not yet recovered from.
Since then, more than 500 salvage workers have taken over the place, in an 18-month scramble to reinforce the damaged hulk, free it from the underwater rocks it is snagged on and float it away. They are scheduled to pull the ship free in the next few weeks. If the operation goes well it will be the greatest success in the history of maritime salvage. But if a single thing goes wrong, the boat will tear apart or sink whole, causing an environmental disaster (see "Refloating the Wrecked Costa Concordia Cruise Ship Could Ruin Marine Sanctuary" ). Either way, the island and its people will never be the same, because the bloody night of the accident and the occupation since then have left an indelible mark. “How can we forget the survivors who looked to us for help, or the families who came to get the bodies of their loved ones?” Ortelli asks.
A Terrible Night
At 9:42 p.m. on that infamous Friday the 13th night, the Concordia, under the questionable navigational skills of Italian captain Francesco Schettino, hit an outcropping of rocks just 450 feet from Giglio’s shore. The ship had just left the port of Civitavecchia, north of Rome, two and a half hours earlier. Schettino was doing a fly-by, essentially diverting the massive liner from its safe sea route between Giglio and the Tuscan mainland, cutting close to the island to blow the horn three times in a maritime salute to a former Costa captain who had retired there. The partially submerged rocks—clearly marked on maritime maps—tore a 165-foot gash in the port side of the hull, compromising three of the ship’s seven lower compartments, which quickly filled with water.
The Concordia was traveling 15 knots at the time of impact. The momentum created a force strong enough to break an 80-ton chunk of rock off the seabed, which became embedded in the ship’s hull. Powerless and rudderless, the Concordia skimmed past the harbor towards open waters before either a force or nature or Schettino’s good luck allowed the ship to make a slow, 360-degree turn, so it could head south back toward the island. But at 10:44 p.m. the ship capsized in 60 feet of water, hung up on an underwater cliff just a few feet from the island’s rocky shore. Six minutes later, at 10:50 p.m., when the ship was listing 70 percent off center, the captain called for passengers to abandon ship. Had the vessel sank into the deep water off the cliff, the catastrophe would surely have been much worse. But the weight of the boulder and the uneven distribution of the water through the hull acted as a counterbalance, keeping the top-heavy ship precariously perched on the edge of the cliff, swaying with each wave that hit it, like a child’s toy in a bathtub.
Ortelli remembers the night vividly. He was having dinner when suddenly saw the ship leaning to its side, still lit up, out of his living room window. He knew immediately that something extraordinary was about to happen. He ran to the harbor as the first lifeboats were coming in and quickly called the island’s hotel proprietors, the local bus company and quay-side café owners, asking them to come down to the port and open their businesses for the thousands of passengers who would be making their way to shore. Word got around quickly. The townspeople came en masse with warm blankets, dry clothes and food. Survivors of the wreck slept in the pews of the local church and on the floors of the coffee bars until daylight, when ferries could shuttle them to the mainland. More than 40 people slept in the mayor’s office that night, many of them freezing in thin blankets, still in their wet clothes after swimming ashore. Thirty-two people died in the disaster and 60 were seriously injured, most from hitting the side of the ship as they jumped to safety. “People were bleeding and swimming with broken arms and legs,” Ortelli told Scientific American in his port-side office, motioning to the window that now perfectly frames the rusting shipwreck like a portrait on the wall. “It was like a scene from a movie, but it wouldn’t stop. The people just kept coming.”