Costa Concordia: How cruise ship tragedy transformed an island paradise

Updated 11:21 AM EDT, Mon September 16, 2013

Story highlights

Costa Concordia ran aground off Giglio in January 2012, killing 32 people

The 500 crew members working in Giglio have transformed the tiny island's social scene

Commerce at the port has also changed to accommodate workers from 21 countries

Editor’s Note: Barbie Latza Nadeau is the Rome bureau chief for Newsweek Daily Beast and a contributor to CNN. She is working on a novel based on the Costa Concordia disaster.

(CNN) —  

Father Lorenzo Pasquotti keeps hundreds of cards and letters from the passengers and crew members who survived the wreck of the Costa Concordia cruise liner on a shelf in the rectory of the brick-faced Church of the Madonna of Giglio, just up the narrow street from the island’s only port.

Many of the letters, handwritten in English, German, French and Italian, are addressed simply to “Giglio, Italy 58012” to no one in particular, almost as if the island itself is a person. The writers express gratitude for assistance they received or apologize for the wreck’s impact on Giglio.

When the postal carrier brings the mail over on the morning ferry from the Italian mainland, he either leaves the new letters with Mayor Sergio Ortelli or at the church with Father Pasquotti. After all, Giglio has always been the type of place where the mailman knows exactly who is around and who is not.

INTERACTIVE: How the 952-foot wreck will be raised

At least that’s the way it used to be before the Costa Concordia ran aground off Giglio on January 13, 2012, killing 32 passengers and injuring dozens more. But in the last year since the salvage operation began at full tilt, the island has shifted from being a secluded utopia that attracted mainly birdwatchers hoping to spot Corsican seagulls, kestrals and goldcrests, or hikers who wanted to climb its solitary slopes, to what it is now: the epicenter of the largest-ever maritime salvage operation in the world.