Screams from passengers on sinking ship rang across night sky

As catastrophe unfolded, islanders rushed to save people from the Costa Concordia.

ALVINO Bartoli was one of the few to see all the Costa Concordia’s death throes. He watched as the ship crawled into Giglio’s curving harbour, already flooding, hull gashed, nose pointing north.
Then he saw the anchor dropped — and to his disbelief, the ship rapidly spun around 180 degrees before listing to one side and slowly sinking until half-submerged.
Dropping the anchor is a move he thinks was a deliberate effort by the captain to set the ship in shallow waters to help with evacuation. “He made a big mistake [in sailing too close to shore] but he also saved many lives,” Mr Bartoli says. “Making the ship change direction and go down there stopped it from going into much deeper water.”
Mr Bartoli said he heard no sound from the ship itself but the screams of those aboard pierced the night.
He was out watching because he had just received a call from his cousin, a waiter on the ship, to say it had struck something. There have been claims that Captain Francesco Schettino sailed close to the island so that the waiter could see his home from the ship.
After the ship rolled, Mr Bartoli froze, feeling as if he was watching a movie. Then he raced to his small fishing boat, Smile, and launched it. Giglio’s Dunkirk had begun.
The holiday island, with its pretty harbour ringed by gelato-coloured houses, is home to only 600 people in the off-season. That night nearly all of them were involved in rescuing or sheltering the 4200 souls fleeing the sinking ship. They did all they could — but now are left to worry that the Costa Concordia’s disaster will sink Giglio’s future, too.
That night Mr Bartoli tried to help people in the water who were screaming for help, but he feared that, in the dark, his engines might kill them. He headed instead to the small orange lifeboats that had no engines and could not navigate, piling people into Smile and puttering them back to shore, again and again.
By midnight nearly all the town’s fishing boats were in the water with him, joined by the coast guard. On shore people came running with warm clothes. The church was opened to refugees; then the school; then people’s own homes. Eighteen strangers stayed with the Bartolis that night. The phones were in meltdown: Can you bring a hot meal? Bread? Coffee?
He says the survivors all had different reactions. “For instance the crew were taking photos: ‘We are alive, so please take a picture of me in the port.’ People who were looking for friends or family were crying. Other people were shuddering with cold.”
Now Mr Bartoli and other fishermen hardly recognise their own harbour, dominated as it is by the vast 114,000-tonne vision of improbability that somehow fills every glimpse of the bay.
They have also found themselves barred from sailing because the waters must be kept clear while recovery efforts continue — even though fishing is their only income during winter.
Most of all, the islanders are worried about the risk that the ship will sink further, break up and belch its 2380 tonnes of fuel into Giglio’s clear waters, which include a marine park. The ship is perched on an undersea ledge and rescuers are working frantically for fear it will slip off to 100 metres deep.
“At the moment, the risk is just 10 per cent,” says Mr Bartoli, “but the problem is that if the boat sinks deeper, it will just break up in two and the risk will go up to 80 per cent. And if that fuel leaks, it will really be the death of Giglio for years.”
Locals fear the fishing and the beaches would be ruined by a thick slick of chemicals, killing two industries in one blow.
Some, like freelance translator Milena Cardaci, think the catastrophe has put Giglio on the map in ways that could boost tourism if the fuel does not leak: “Giglio is now known in France and the US and Australia in a way it wasn’t before.”
Though she and others think that has a dark side too: they are not looking forward to Giglio finding itself on the disaster-tourism trail.

First published in The Age.