Giglio: Tiny island bears witness to tragedy

Cruise ship Costa Concordia lies stricken off the shore of the island of Giglio on January 18, 2012 in Giglio Porto, Italy.

Story highlights

  • Giglio's mayor says everyone pulled together to try to help the stricken cruise ship
  • The tiny island of about 1,500 people is usually quiet outside the summer tourist season
  • "The dark on the harbor at night is terrible ... There are still dead in that wreck," a resident says
  • The rocky island off the Tuscan coast was once inhabited by the Romans

For days the giant carcass of the once-proud Costa Concordia has lain stricken off the rocky shore of the island of Giglio, rescue vessels bobbing in the chilly seas around it.

The disaster that has claimed at least 11 lives, with some two dozen people still unaccounted for, has pushed the tiny island and its residents into an international spotlight

"When the tragedy happened everything was closed. We are a little island, calm in winter. The last bar closes at 9 p.m.," the island's mayor, Sergio Ortelli, told CNN.

But as the luxury liner foundered on that fateful Friday night and rescuers scrambled to evacuate the ship's 4,200 passengers and crew, community leaders stepped up to offer all the help they could.

"We are all friends. That night I was coordinating rescue operations on shore, my deputy went on board, and another member of our city hall was maneuvering the rescue boats," Ortelli said.

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"It was very dangerous. People were smashed from lifeboat to the harbor's pier, like in an (amusement) park. I immediately called the bus company, the church, the hotels and the school and they all were immediately ready to cooperate."

Many of the passengers brought ashore, some wearing only their pajamas, were given shelter in homes and buildings around the rocky, tree-covered island -- which still has traces of Roman habitation -- before being found a safe passage to the mainland by ferry.

Read about a Hungarian among the ship dead

Ortelli said the police presence on the island had ballooned one hundredfold, from a force that normally numbers 12 to some 1,200 officers.

The ongoing tragedy has shaken many of Giglio's 1,500 or so residents, most of whom live in the island's three villages.

Elsa Pini, a 64-year-old local, had a tear in her eye as she pointed to the Costa Concordia on its side off a rocky promontory.

"Everyone on the island helped that night, by inviting survivors to warm up at home or giving them food. There were many little kids," she told CNN.

"Every morning when I see the wreck, it seems like if someone died. Now the island is full of people, rescuers, journalists, but it's not a feast, (there's) no happiness.

"The dark on the harbor at night is terrible, it's an immense darkness. There are still dead in that wreck."

As the hopes of finding survivors fade, some are starting to wonder how long the ship's wreckage will remain offshore as a painful reminder of the tragedy.

Fears have also been raised about the potential environmental impact, if the 2,300 tons of heavy fuel and oil carried by the ship should escape.

The island, which lies nine miles off the Tuscan coast, is within the bounds of a marine wildlife sanctuary that is home to birds, whales and sharks. An oil leak could also blight the coves and sandy beaches that are popular with tourists who catch the ferry over from Porto Santo Stefano, on the mainland, during the summer months.

Costa, the ship's owner, has pledged to prioritize protection of the environment and has called in Dutch experts Smit Salvage to manage recovery of the ship.

Meanwhile, the captain -- who according to court documents has admitted making a mistake and navigating by sight off the island's notoriously rocky shores -- may be charged with manslaughter, shipwreck and abandoning ship.

Read court documents on the case against Francesco Schettino (trans. by La Repubblica)

"What happened is like a thunder clap in a bright sky. For the stupidity of one man, such a great disaster!" Ortelli said. "In the future I hope they will not allow ships in the channel between us and the mainland."