Two Years On, Costa Concordia Remains the Wreck Italy Can’t Forget

Two years after the Costa Concordia’s fatal sinking, the ship’s crew are still being tried in Italian court and the salvage operation continues.

01.13.14 6:00 PM ET

It has been two years since the giant Costa Concordia cruise ship smashed into the rocks off the Tuscan island of Giglio on January 13, 2012, killing 32 people and seriously injuring scores more.  In those two years, the island has changed from a once-peaceful paradise to a magnet for tragedy tourists who still come to snap pictures of the watery graveyard.  The body of 33-year-old Russel Rebello, a crew member from India who was last seen helping people get into life rafts the fateful night, has never been found.  On Monday, local residents of Giglio joined a scant few survivors and members of the Costa cruiseline and the Titan-Micoperi salvage team in a solemn ceremony to mark the anniversary on the island.  A mass was held in the tiny church in the island’s port where thousands of passengers took refuge the night the Concordia crashed.  A candlelit ceremony and the sounding of boat horns will mark the moment of impact at 9:45 pm before 32 floating lanterns are sent to the skies above the wreck. 

Madeleine Soria Molina of Peru, whose sister Erika Fani Soria Molina was a waitress on the ship, came to Giglio to honor her sister’s memory. “I am here because it is the one way to be with her again,” she told The Daily Beast after she prayed near a commemorative plaque islanders had erected on the pier closest to the shipwreck.  “I will never recover from losing her, but coming here helps me find closure.”

On the Tuscan mainland, where the Concordia’s erstwhile captain is standing trial for manslaughter, causing a maritime disaster and abandoning ship, the judges and around a dozen passengers stood for a moment of silence before court was dismissed due to a lawyer’s strike.  Schettino, who was absent from Monday’s brief hearing, told reporters near his hometown of Meta di Sorrento, near Naples, that he was thinking of the victims.  “I express my deepest sympathy and renewal of my closeness to the families of the victims,” he said, adding that the annivesary “renews the indelible pain for all of us.”  The captain has maintained that he is not solely responsible for the disaster. Five Costa employees, including the emergency manager at Costa headquarters in Genova who Schettino talked to more than a dozen times between the time the ship hit the rocks and when the captain called for passengers to abandon the ship, have pleaded guilty in plea bargains. Schettino’s plea bargain was rejected and he is standing trial alone.  Italy’s high court is currently determining whether his former colleagues’ plea bargains are legally sound.  Last fall, the court heard from Domnica Cemortan, the captain’s Moldovan lover who was his guest on the cruise, who admitted to having a romantic affair with the captain. Prosecutors believe Cemortan may have distracted Schettino the night of the accident.  Schettino is expected to testify sometime this spring.

On Giglio, the Concordia salvage operation, still ongoing and now estimated to have cost the Costa cruise line and its parent company Carnival more than $800 million, has become a new textbook case for engineers and salvage crew seeking to learn from the unique wreck.  Techniques used to “parbuckle” or pull the giant ship upright last September have set the standard in maritime salvage.  When it is refloated and towed away to be demolished next June, it will be the first time a ship that large has ever been righted, lifted and towed using giant floatation boxes.  Twelve ports, including five in Italy and some as far away as the United Kingdom, Turkey and China, are vying to be the ship’s final resting place.  The lucrative winning bid will be announced in March. M. Michael Thamm, head of Carnival, accepted that the Concordia disaster has forever marred his company.  "This incident is part of our DNA and our mission is to make sure that it never happens again,” he told reporters in Rome on Friday ahead of the anniversary.  He says that the salvage operation has already pumped €540 million into the Italian economy, mostly through the Italian shipyards where the implements of salvage have been manufactured.

Of the 4,229 passengers and crew on board, around 100 have still not settled with the Costa company for damages.  The families of the 32 victims who lost their lives have reportedly received around €1 million, according to lawyers working on their behalf.  Thousands of passengers took Costa’s offer of €11,000 to cover their losses, tickets and eventual counseling.  Those who were severely injured or traumatized by the accident were able to reach settlements upwards of a quarter of a million euro, depending on the extent of their disabilities caused by the wreck.   After the ship was righted last fall, members of the salvage team, flanked by Italian police and Costa representatives, stripped the locked stateroom safes from 700 of the above-water rooms. The safes will eventually be returned to passengers once the items have been catalogued.  The rest of the locked safes in the rooms still submerged will be returned after the ship reaches its final destination.

On Giglio, the remnants of the disaster will never go away even after the Concordia is towed from its shores.  “We can never go back to how we were before,” Giglio’s mayor Sergio Ortelli told The Daily Beast. “Even when the ship is gone, we will forever bear the scars of that horrible night.”