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'There were so many children and lots of people were thanking God that they were still alive'

Michael Day reports from the Tuscan village inundated by survivors

Crossing the tranquil lagoon yesterday from mainline Tuscany to the verdant peninsula of Monte Argentario it was hard to imagine the scenes from 1970s-style disaster film that descended on this beautiful and isolated part of Italy on Friday night and early Saturday, as helicopters and ambulances raced back and forth.

Take the ferry from Monte Argentario to Giglio, though, and evidence of the accident is plain to see. Jutting from the shallow water, 300 metres from the island, the stricken Costa Concordia lies, like North Peckham housing estate, at sea but at an absurd angle as rescue boats bob around it.

Given the speed with which the cruise liner listed in the cold waters, with more than 4,000 passengers and crew spilling out, it seems remarkable that only five people perished. But if doubts are building over actions of senior crew members and the ship's preparedness for coping with an emergency, it appears that the locals, as well as the rescue services, reacted swiftly and with compassion.

Giglio's priest Don Lorenzo Paquatti, 62, who arrived on the island of 800 people from Milan three months ago, said his church became an emergency centre for hundreds of survivors.

"There were so many children. And above all I remember how all of them were moving as if they were expecting something – some sort of help," he said. "Lots of people were thanking God they were still alive and there were all the people in evening wear; the women were all made up with incredibly high heels."

Local Fabio Rosso said many elderly passengers were taken to the mainland in wheelchairs, giving support to reports that some victims were disabled – and making it all the more remarkable that by Sunday evening the death toll was relatively small.

Signora Liliana, owner of Giglio's only hotel, the modestly-sized Bahamas, squeezed in hundreds of cold and stunned survivors, many of whom had been unable to find lifeboats and had jumped into the sea then swam ashore. Some stayed for several hours and many for the whole night. The cruise ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, who has been arrested for suspected multiple manslaughter, phoned his mother from the bridge: "There's been a tragedy... but don't worry, I tried to save the passengers," he is reported to have told her, before jumping ship.

Magistrates are considering an additional charge of abandoning ship ahead of passengers. Italian media reports suggest he ignored calls by the coastguard to return to help rescue efforts.

"It looked like they were making a little sight-seeing tour, said Carlo, 59, a local in a bar. "The lights on Giglio look pretty at night. He wanted to show them, and that's how I think it hit the rocks".

Some local people are now not keen on travelling by cruise ship. Elena Ballerano said: "To be honest, going on one of those huge luxury liners, trapped with all those people, is my idea of hell. And on Friday night that's what it became."