News24

Italian islanders rise to ship disaster

2012-01-15 15:58

Giglio Island - An idyllic Italian island best known for its rustic charm has become the scene of a disaster and a frantic search for survivors from a luxury cruise liner crashed onto its rocky shores.

"The whole island has been helping out. We've never seen anything on this scale," said Giorgio Fanciulli, who runs a local news website and saw the tragedy as it unfolded after the ship began listing badly and keeled over.

"It looks like a photomontage. I have trouble believing that it's a real image," said Fanciulli, looking out at the half-submerged ship just outside Giglio's picturesque harbour of multi-coloured houses and restaurants.

"It's weird seeing so many people here in January. Usually, there's absolute calm. It only fills up in the summer," as dozens of journalists and rescue crews milled past and emergency vehicles manoeuvred around the tiny harbour.

Fanciulli said the ship was sailing past the island in a sort of show for the locals - a common tradition in Italian ports -- but was much too close to the shores and hit a group of submerged rocks that were well known to locals.

"The humanity of this island has really come out. We have a population of 800 people and suddenly there were more than 4 000 from the ship," he said.

Other local residents said they had rushed to aid survivors in the night between Friday and Saturday, bringing blankets and warm clothing as well as opening their homes for the liner's multi-national crew and passengers.

"We even used the priest's robes to clothe people! They were in light clothing because they were just settling down to supper when it happened," said one woman who declined to be named but said she was "a proud islander".

The woman, speaking at the local tobacconists, said: "The children were crying, they were scared. They were so wet! We had to change their clothes."

The sea is a good thing

She said she rushed to the scene in the evening when she heard a crash and looked out of her window and stayed all night helping survivors.

"We were all shocked. We will say a prayer for the victims today," she said.

"We're used to ships here. My son works on a ship, my husband works on a ship. When I look at it there, I feel sad, it's like an injured person. It's part of us. We were born here. For us the sea is always a good thing.

"Everyone knows where the rocks are! I don't know what happened. We pass it all the time in our boat. The captain must have made some mistake," she added.

Now she said she was afraid of possible fuel leaks from the ship: "It would be a huge disaster. We've got golden sandy beaches here!"

Local officials said there were 2 380 tons of fuel on the ship but no leaks so far.

Giglio mayor Sergio Ortelli said he had barely slept in the last 48 hours as he tried to co-ordinate assistance to the survivors and rescue efforts.

"I'm very worried. I'm worried about everything," he said.

"With a cataclysm on this scale I haven't been able to have an emotion. I'm just satisfied that the population responded 150%."

He said ships do sometimes file past the island for show and that a small boat with three people on board had previously hit the same rocks.

"But it's never been anything on this scale. The ship was far too close. They were definitely taking a big risk," he said.