Italy has honoured the 32 victims of the Costa Concordia shipwreck on the 10th anniversary of the disaster with a commemoration on the Tuscan island of Giglio, which recalled the horror of the night the cruise ship struck a reef and capsized.
Some of the 4,200 survivors attended the events, which began with a Mass and were ending with a candlelit vigil marking the moment, 9.45pm local time, that the Concordia hit the rocks that sliced a 70-metre (230ft) gash in its hull.
Bells rang in the same Giglio church that opened its doors and took in hundreds of passengers who abandoned ship and reached shore in lifeboats that freezing night.
Some had climbed off the lopsided liner on rope ladders after it flipped on to its side; others were plucked from the decks by rescue helicopters.
“I invite you to have the courage to look forward,” Grosseto bishop Giovanni Roncari told survivors, relatives of the dead and coast guard officials who had helped co-ordinate the rescue.
“Hope doesn’t cancel the tragedy and pain, but it teaches us to look beyond the present moment without forgetting it.”
Under a brilliant sun and blue sky, survivors and relatives of the victims then set out on coast guard cutters to place a wreath in the choppy waters where the 115,000-ton, 300-metre (1,000ft) liner finally came to rest.
Her captain, Francesco Schettino, is serving a 16-year prison sentence for manslaughter and other charges for having ordered the crew to steer the ship off course and closer to Giglio in a stunt.
After the ship hit the reef, the engine room flooded and generators failed, causing a power outage, while the vessel started to list.
Evidence presented at the trial showed Schettino downplayed the severity of the situation in communications with the coast guard and delayed an evacuation order, then abandoned ship before all the passengers and crew were off.
Giglio’s vice mayor at the time, Mario Pellegrini, had climbed on board the listing ship that night to help co-ordinate the rescue, and found sheer chaos in the absence of orders from the captain or crew.
He recalled he finally climbed down after the last passengers and crew had been evacuated, at around 6am the following morning.
“The memories I have from that night inside the ship are terrible, of the tears and desperation of the people,” he said on Thursday.
“I would have wanted to save everyone, but thinking about it again, everything I could do, I did.”
The 10th anniversary is also recalling how the residents of Giglio took in the 4,200 surviving passengers and crew, giving them food, blankets and a place to rest until day broke and they were ferried to the mainland.
Giglio’s people then lived with the Concordia’s hulk for another two years until it was righted and hauled away for scrap.
“It was right to be here, to pay tribute to those victims, but the primary motivation is to thank and greet the people who helped me that night, from Giglio,” said survivor Luciano Castro.
Giglio’s residents for their part warmly welcomed Kevin Rebello, whose brother Russel, a Concordia waiter, was the last person unaccounted for until crews discovered his remains while dismantling the ship in 2014 in a Genoa shipyard.
Kevin Rebello had become close to many Giglio residents and rescuers during the months that divers searched for his brother.
On Thursday, as he arrived for the commemorative Mass, he received an award from the Civil Protection Agency.
“This is for (Russel),” Mr Rebello told reporters as he clutched the plaque.
“He would be proud of it.”
The anniversary comes as the cruise ship industry, shut down in much of the world for months because of the coronavirus pandemic, is again in the spotlight because of Covid-19 outbreaks that threaten passenger safety.
The US Centres for Disease Control last month warned people to avoid cruises, regardless of their vaccination status, because of the infection risk.
For Concordia survivors, the Covid-19 infections on cruise ships are another indication that passenger safety still is not a top industry priority.
Concordia passengers were largely left on their own to find life jackets and a functioning lifeboat.
Because of the delayed evacuation order, many lifeboats could not be lowered because the ship was already on its side.
Ester Percossi recalled being thrown to the ground in the dining room by the initial impact of the reef gashing into the hull “like an earthquake”.
The lights went out, and bottles, glasses and plates flew off the tables.
“We got up and with great effort went out on deck and there we got the life vests – those that we could find, because everyone was grabbing them from each other – to save themselves,” she recalled.
“There was no law. Just survival and that is it.”
Former coast guard Cmdr Gregorio De Falco returned for the commemorations, 10 years after he became something of a national hero when audio emerged of his expletive-laden communications with Schettino in the hours after impact, ordering him to get back on board and co-ordinate the rescue.
“You prepare all your life for these mass rescue operations with the hope that you never have to do one,” Cmdr De Falco said on Thursday.
“But it happened to us.”
Costa sent representatives to the ceremonies and issued a statement saying the company’s thoughts were with the victims and their relatives.
It noted that since the disaster, it has undertaken the massive operation to right the ship, remove it, and restore the damaged seabed.
The cruise line, a unit of US-based Carnival Corporation, thanked the rescue crews and residents of Giglio as well as the Costa employees “who gave their assistance and worked restlessly that night and in the following phases with generosity and courage”.