Costa Concordia tragedy: Cruise ship's salvage a wreck for Italian island

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Last January, the captain of the Italian mega-cruise ship Costa Concordia committed an apparent act of maritime bravado a few yards from the shore of a Tuscan island. Thirty people were killed, and two are still missing.

Six months after one of the biggest passenger shipwrecks in recent history, relatives of the dead attended a memorial service near the site of the disaster.

The solemn notes of Mozart's Requiem echoed through the small church of Saints Lorenzo and Mamiliano on the island of Giglio.

It was the same church that, on a cold night in January, sheltered many of the 4,200 passengers and crew members of the Costa Concordia.

Captain blames his crew

On that night, in an effort to entertain the passengers with a close-up view of the island, Capt. Francesco Schettino accidentally rammed the vessel into a rocky reef just a few dozen yards from shore.

Schettino faces multiple manslaughter charges as well as charges of causing the accident and abandoning ship. He was released this week from house arrest, and in his first TV interview, he blamed his junior officers.

"This was a banal accident in which, fate would have it, there was a breakdown in communication between people. And this created misunderstandings and anger," Schettino said. "It was as if there had been a breakdown in people's heads as well as in the instruments."

Schettino's remarks infuriated relatives of the dead as well as Giglio's mayor, Sergio Ortelli.

"A captain cannot shift blame onto his officers," he said. "And a ship with more than 4,000 people on board cannot be put under the command of such an amateur."

Elio Vincenzi was even more dismissive of the captain. His wife, Maria Grazia, is still listed among the missing. "It was not the sea that took my wife away," he said. "It was human stupidity."

An economic salvage operation

The Costa Concordia still lies on its side 100 yards from the harbor. A huge hunk of granite weighing some 80 tons is still embedded in the hull of the marooned ship. Once removed, it will be used as memorial for dead.

The mammoth vessel is an eyesore and oppressive reminder of tragedy for local residents.

"To wake up every morning and to see this thing, from my point of view, it is terrible," says Matteo Bellomo, who has had a second home on Giglio for 50 years. "Every time you look at it, you think to the people there, and people that died, and to the two people they have not found."

Giglio Island has long been cherished as a hidden paradise in the Tuscan archipelago.

It's in Europe's biggest marine sanctuary, with crystal-clear waters rich in flora and fauna. Now, the marooned hulk dominates the Giglio skyline and has become a sinister attraction of what some call disaster tourism — drawing hundreds of gawking tourists who snap away at the photo opportunity.

The shipwreck has altered the local economy; Mayor Ortelli says tourism income has dropped by 50 percent. Traditional nature lovers who came for a week or more have been replaced by day-trippers.

Islanders can't wait to see the ship's removal, but it's an enormous salvage operation. The Costa Concordia is two-and-a-half football fields long, says Nick Sloane, the senior salvage master for the project. "And we're dealing with 60,000 tons of weight, on rocks right on an exposed parts of island."

Sloane says the priority is to remove the ship in one piece, in order to minimize impact on the environment. Weather permitting, the Costa Concordia should be refloated and towed to a mainland port by early next year.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio.

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