GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy–An Italian island on Saturday prepared to mark the first anniversary of the Costa Concordia cruise disaster, as officials promised the 290-meter (951-foot) wreck will be removed by September.
Survivors and victims’ relatives began to arrive on Giglio for a commemoration on Sunday for the 32 passengers and crew who perished that night on a ship twice the size of the Titanic. A total of 296 Filipinos were on board as crewmembers when the 17-deck cruise ship sunk.
“It’s not easy to return,” said Kevin Rebello, whose brother was a waiter on the Costa Concordia and is still officially reported as missing.
“I was looking at the ship when I was coming in on the ferry. It brought back memories of those days…. I have still not found peace,” he said.
The liner crashed into a group of rocks just off Giglio, veered sharply and keeled over just as many passengers were sitting down for supper on the first night of a Mediterranean cruise.
Salvage workers have been labouring around the clock for months to stabilise the wreck and eventually refloat it and tow it away in an operation that has never been attempted before.
The removal has been hit by delays but the head of Italy’s civil protection agency, Franco Gabrielli, said it would happen by September at the latest.
“The programme envisages the definitive removal by September,” Gabrielli told reporters on the island, underlining that the operation was “exceptional”.
Franco Porcellacchia, an executive from ship owner Costa Crociere who is overseeing the project, said the budget had increased from $300 million to $400 million (300 million euros) and could rise further.
Nick Sloane, a representative of US salvage giant Titan which is working together with Italian partner Micoperi on the project, said the actual refloating of the ship could happen by July.
“The most difficult part lies ahead. Refloating the boat should only take six hours, but the weight of the shifting water inside the ship as we right it must be extremely carefully controlled,” he said.
Meanwhile marquees to host the more than 100 survivors expected at the ceremony have sprung up along the Tuscan island’s port, just a few hundred yards from where the ship capsized with 4,229 people from 70 countries on board.
Mayor Sergio Ortelli said islanders were keen to welcome back those who lived through that night, even though Costa Crociere asked survivors to stay away from the commemoration because of logistics.
Many of them had sought shelter in local homes and a church in the port after being pulled shivering from the freezing sea after a panicky evacuation.
“The idea is to exorcise a horrible episode, and to share the pain and drama of those who lost a loved one,” Ortelli said.
“Many survivors and relatives of victims have returned to thank us, and share their memories with us. Some, a year on, still send us emails,” he said.
The commemorations on Sunday will include replacing where it once stood the rock that the ship crashed into and tore away. There will then be a mass.
Father Lorenzo Pasquotti said he would display objects that survivors left behind — life jackets, emergency blankets, even discarded rolls of bread — next to the altar, underneath a Madonna statue salvaged from the ship’s chapel.
Flowers and candles line the aisles of the church, where extra pews have been squeezed in for survivors, salvage workers and government officials.
Rebello said he hoped the ceremony would not be overshadowed by talk about the Concordia’s infamous captain Francesco Schettino.
Schettino is accused of causing the crash through reckless seamanship and then abandoning ship before all the passengers had been rescued.
He is one of 10 people under investigation, including other crew members and three executives from Costa Crociere.
Rebello said he had spoken to Schettino by phone several times, because the Italian captain knew his brother personally.
“I’m not expecting answers from him. I’ve forgiven him,” he said.