Costa Concordia: Sun, sea, sand... and shipwreck

The plan to remove the Costa Concordia is finally taking shape. But there's an unexpected snag: some of the locals have fallen for the new attraction

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The Independent Online

The sense of chaos in the little port of Giglio has died down. The world's media has drifted away, leaving a few members of the civil protection agency, strolling casually from their tent on the quayside to the Fausto café.

Click HERE to view 'Costa Concordia: Raising a giant' graphic

The reason why this little island came to the world's attention on 13 January this year is rarely out of sight or mind, though. Just beyond the port opening, the wrecked Costa Concordia lies, partially submerged, at the same odd angle. Its yellow funnel, with its black rim, points at the island like a cigarette butt.

On the surface at least some normality has returned to Giglio.

Plans to remove the wreck are underway. The pollution has been contained. The economic effects of the disaster do not appear to be as ruinous as some had feared.

Some locals beg to differ, however. "Things can never be called normal while that monstrosity is still there," said Emanuele Mattera, 37, owner of the Pierina bar in the port.

"Every time I look at it, it's a like a slap in the face. People come here for the beauty and tranquillity. But with that thing there, some of them will decide not to."

If locals are still aghast at the Concordia wreck, ex-pats such as Gertraud Lang Schildberger, 69, who owns the Brandaglia lettings agency in Giglio port, have a different take.

Ms Lang Schildberger, who has the regal manner of an upper-class Austrian but speaks with the accent and frankness of someone who grew up in Sydney, says of the islanders: "Oh, this lot have never had it so good. The hotels and ferries have never been this full in Giglio.

"They were booked up all of January and February. I don't think they've ever served so many pizzas."

She noted, too that pollution fears have proved unfounded. "The sea is cleaner that it's ever been," she said. Schools of small fish that swim up to the dock-front in turquoise water just yards from the pastel-colour shops, bars and apartments, seem to bear this out.

The Mayor of Giglio, Sergio Ortelli, told The Independent, however, that the fear of pollution, at least in the minds of tourists, who came to the island for snorkelling or fishing, was probably hitting the local economy. "I think bookings are down," he said.

A quick survey of the port's accommodation agencies and bars, suggests the vast majority expected a weaker holiday season partly as a result of the wreck.

"This is probably due to the recession as well as the Concordia," says Mr Ortelli. "The real test will be from the middle of June when the children are off from school. So far we've had lots of the curious, who come on day trips to look at the wreck, but these people are not staying in hotels for a week."

But he conceded the disaster had brought unexpected business in the form of the hundreds of journalists and emergency personnel who descended on the island in January and February, as well as salvage workers who have been on the island for four months.

Ms Lang Schildberger says the arrival of 200 or so British, American and Italian staff from salvage companies Titan and Micoperi should give the local economy another fillip.

Despite Giglio's shock at having to deal with 500 journalists, Massimiliano Botti, the owner of the Porta Via restaurant, which served as the ad hoc press centre in January, readily admitted that he was mostly laughing all the way to the bank. "We certainly made a lot of money when it all happened," he said.

He is even preparing some blow-up photographic mementos of the shambles. But locals took even more kindly to the other group of visitors, the salvage engineers from the Dutch firm Smit, who successfully extracted the toxic fuel oil form the wreck before their company was beaten to the removal contract by the US firm Titan.

The animated and big spending Dutch salvage engineers were so popular that the islanders organised a special send-off for them in May, with locals ringing the entire port to form a Mexican wave. "They were great friends to us. We had a really good feeling with them," said Mr Botti.

Mayor Ortelli insisted it was not just about the cash they spent. He said that for Giglio and the Gigliesi, not everything revolved around money.

Had the Concordia crashed off Portofino or the Costa Smeralda, it's not difficult to imagine the nouveaux riches sailing up in their yachts to the wreck to spray Krug and snap photos.

But says, Ms Lang Schildberger, "Giglio has kept its character. The port's so small at Giglio that there's not even space for those super-yachts, so the very rich have gone elsewhere."

Despite different takes on the extent to which the disaster had hurt the local economy, there was a surprising degree of confidence in the ability of Titan to safely remove the Concordia before it slips off into a deep crevice. Work is beginning in earnest under the watchful eye of experts from London Offshore Consultants, the marine accident advisers, employed by Costa Cruises's insurers to ensure the work, which is likely to cost in the region of $300m, proceeds as planned. Engineers will build platform underneath the 114,500-tonne vessel to prevent it slipping of its ledge into deeper water. Then cranes placed on ships by the wreck will lift the stricken 291m liner to an upright position, while buoyancy devices are fitting to the sides. If this all goes to plan it will then be towed to a major port on the mainland to be dismantled.

Richard Habib, Titan's president, says: "It will be successful, and we believe that our plan will work." But he also conceded that the operation entailed significant risks and was "unprecedented", adding that if it went wrong there was no "plan B". Silvio Bartolotti, the manager of Micoperi, admitted the scale of the challenge was "gigantic".

Costa Cruises has said the plan gives "top priority to minimising environmental impact, to protecting Giglio's economy and tourism industry, and to maximum safety of the work". It said that if the removal is successful, the sea bottom will be cleaned and marine flora replanted. But before this there will be a more pressing task – to find the last two bodies of the 32 people who died in the disaster. Both are believed to been trapped underneath the wreck.

The failure to find the last two victims, one Italian and one Indian, has continued to cast a pall over the little island, said Paolo Fanciulli, 47, the owner of The Bahamas Hotel.

It was here that Captain Francesco Schettino was said to have popped for a shave and a shower after crashing the cruise liner on the rocks and leaving hundreds of his passengers to fend for themselves.

"Things can never be normal until they find the last two bodies," said Mr Fanciulli. "The place has lost some of its serenity," he said.

"This is a very religious island and also a very superstitious one. People here have always respected and feared the sea. For something that bad to happen at sea is seen as a very bad sign."