It was a chilly evening in January in the quiet village of Porto Giglio (pronounced GEE-lio). A nearly full moon shone upon the waters of the Mediterranean, the sea that sent its undulating waves lapping at the breakwater that enclosed the small harbor. A pair of lighthouses, one painted bright red and the other a vivid green, guarded the entrance. Beyond them, anyone peeking from behind their shuttered windows could see distant lights twinkling across the water on Monte Argentario, a large promontory connected to the Italian mainland a dozen miles away.
In the village it was a winter night like many others. Porto Giglio has been a sea-faring town for generations uncounted. Although home to some 1500 people, only 800 residents remained through the winter months. The evening chill had sent them home to dinners and warm beds. Tomorrow would be another day of fishing, repairing boats, or tending to the small enterprises that made up the island economy. Yet this particular January night would be one that they would never forget.
I recently visited the island, part of the Tuscan Archipelago, to learn first-hand about the events of that fateful and historic night. I found the people friendly and open and the town itself charming. Yet there was a certain reserve about the traumatic events which had changed it forever. Some were hesitant to speak about it, yet they had banded together to share their memories in a book, entitled “quella notte un anno dopo,” or “that night one year later.” The book is a collection of intimate memories, as personal as a diary, but they have shared it with the world.
Shortly before 9:00 on that fateful evening, a glowing array of lights was approaching from the south, from Civitavecchia, the bustling port of Rome, a few score miles away. The lights belonged to a ship known as the Costa Concordia, the pride of the line. Only six years old, gleaming white, and filled with dining passengers, the Concordia was heading north to Savona, the first leg of a week’s cruise around the central Mediterranean. The ship’s course would take it between Giglio’s rocky shores and the mainland’s mountains, a familar passage it made some 25 times a year. This time, however, the captain planned a closer approach, in order to salute the tiny islet, home to one of the ship’s officers. That maneuver would lead to disaster, and change the people of the island forever.
At 9:45, as most of the island’s residents were heading off to bed, the Costa Concordia made it’s closest approach. Passing within a mile of the harbor mouth, the ship was a moving mountain. More than 950 feet long, and bearing more than 4,200 passengers and crew, it dwarfed the tiny village. Anyone watching from shore would no doubt stop to watch its passage. Would they have noticed the sudden shudder of the vessel as it encountered the rocks of the well-known reef of “Le Scole?” It seems unlikely. Even many of those aboard failed to recognize that the ship had struck ground, yet as it continued northward, it bore in its torn hull a huge boulder ripped from the sea-bed, wedged into the end of a long gash sliced deeply into the steel of the hull.
As water began pouring into the lower levels of the ship, Captain Francesco Schettino at first seemed in denial about what had happened, as were some of the other officers. The engine room was flooding, shutting down power generation. When electrical power began to fail on the ship, passengers were re-assured that the situation was under control, and told to return to their cabins. Some did.
Losing power, the ship gradually slowed to a crawl. As the situation became clear, the captain turned the ship toward the tiny port town, seemingly unsure of how to react. More than 30 minutes after the impact a general alarm had still not been raised, no assistance had been requested, and the captain was assuring the authorities that the ship had only had an electrical blackout.
At 10:26 p.m., as the people of Giglio slept, came the delayed admission that the ship was in trouble. The call was passed to the local men of the Guardia di Finanza, the local Italian authorities. At 10:44 the coast guard boat was launched from the harbor, and found the ship settling on the rocky bottom only a few hundred yards from the town. Hearing the word, the staff of the tiny Giglio newspaper rushed to the scene, and soon a photograph of the darkened ship, listing heavily, was being flashed to news outlets around the world.
Aboard the huge vessel, conditions were confused, and the slanting decks made walking ever more difficult. As the ship continued to list farther to starboard, passengers, without clear instructions, were beginning to panic. Many were climbing into the lifeboats, and some of the crew were assisting them. Some had leapt into the chilly waters in an attempt to swim to the steep rock face of the shore. Finally, at 10:48 came the signal from the captain – seven short blasts from the ships horn, followed by one long one – the order to abandon ship.
Some in the town heard the ship’s signal, and knew immediately that trouble was afoot. Others, awakened by the commotion in the harbor, peered out windows at the apparition of the massive ship, and sprang to their boats. Within minutes, every able person in the village had rushed to help. Some of the ship’s lifeboats were lowered and cast off virtually empty in the dark and confusion. Others, overloaded, careened hard into the water. More than 90 people were tossed into the inky sea. Those aboard the boats worked to rescue them from the waters.
The Costa Concordia lies on the reef just outside the harbor of Porto Giglio
In the town, blankets were hurriedly gathered and the church was opened as a shelter as a flotilla of lifeboats and small fishing vessels began carrying the thousands from the ship to the tiny breakwater jetty. It was after 4:00 a.m before the last of the survivors was removed from the vessel.
Giglio that night became the model for human compassion, for action beyond capacity. Outnumbered five-to-one by the victims of the disaster, the villagers worked through the night, through exhaustion, to pluck people from the rocks, pull them from the waters, warm them, dry them, feed them, and comfort them in their need. The night created many heroes, and there were few among the population of that village who failed to earn that commendation.
The author at Porto Giglio
Morning light found the enormous ship lying on its side, and a flotilla of boats arriving from the mainland to help ferry the survivors home. Of the more than 4200 aboard the Concordia, most escaped serious injury. Thirty-two lost their lives. Two have never been found.
On January 13, 2013, one year after the tragedy, the people of Porto Giglio held a solemn service in memory of those who were lost. They erected a small plaque at the town wharf, remembering them, and acknowledging the actions of their own at a time of great need.
The plaque erected “in memory of the rescue of over 4000 shipwreck victims from the ship Costa Concordia,” and recognizing the citizens of Giglio for making the island an example of citizenship.
Today, more than a year after the disaster, the Costa Concordia remains on the rocks. A small army of salvagers work toward righting and floating the vessel to be cut up for salvage. The boulder will be removed from the hull and placed at the port, a permanent reminder of the vulnerability of even the largest vessels to the dangers of the sea. That monument may eventually be one of few visible changes left in the town. But for the 800 people who live in Porto Giglio, things will never be quite the same again.
“At times there is a very thin line separating fact and faith, hope and destiny.” - Sergio Ortelli, Mayor, Comune of the Island of Giglio.