Giglio Island - Italy's once-luxurious Costa Concordia cruise ship embarked on its last voyage on Wednesday, as tug boats began towing it from island wreck site to scrapyard grave in one of the biggest salvage operations in maritime history.
Hundreds of onlookers on the Mediterranean island of Giglio, including survivors from the nighttime disaster two and a half years ago that left 32 people dead, watched from shore as the crippled giant began its crawl up the coast.
“This is a big day for Giglio but we'll only be able to relax once it reaches Genoa”, Nick Sloane, the South African salvage master in charge of the operation, was quoted by Italian news agency Ansa as saying.
The rusting liner, roughly twice the size of the Titanic and now hoisted afloat by massive air chambers, will be tugged to the port of Genoa in northwest Italy, where it will be dismantled and scrapped.
The massive operation - including a 17-man crew aboard the Concordia, a dozen vessels in a convoy, and two tug boats pulling the wreckage at a speed of just two knots (3.7 kilometres) per hour - is expected to reach Genoa in four days, weather permitting.
Surviving passengers who returned to Tuscany's Giglio island for the final farewell, said they were ready to put the nightmarish experience behind them.
“We hope that what we've kept inside us will depart when the boat departs. And that as it goes on its way, we can finally go on ours,” Anne Decre of the French Survivors' Collective told AFP, clutching the hand of friend Nicole Servel whose husband died in the disaster.
On the evening of January 13, 2012, the 4 229 passengers from 70 countries were settling into the first night of their cruise when their luxury liner struck a rocky outcrop off the Tuscan island of Giglio.
The biggest Italian passenger ship ever built - the length of three football fields - the Concordia boasted four swimming pools, tennis courts, 13 bars, a cinema and a casino.
The crash tore a massive gash in its hull and it veered sharply as the water poured in, eventually keeling over and sparking a panicky evacuation and, ultimately, dozens of deaths.
In what ship owner Costa Crociere estimates is a billion-euro salvage operation - excluding the cost of its disposal - the Costa Concordia was being towed by Dutch- and Vanuatu-flagged boats while the flotilla carries divers, engineers, a medical team and environmental experts with it.
Sensors attached to the sides of the ship will monitor for possible cracks in the crippled hull, while underwater cameras will watch for debris washing out of the vessel amid fears toxic waste could spill into the sea.
Objects floating free such as suitcases, clothes and furniture will be caught in a huge net while infrared sensors will be used to detect possible oil leaks at night.
Sloane, whose career as salvage master has taken him to six continents and two warzones, has called the Costa Concordia the “biggest challenge” and said he is ready to “wave goodbye to Giglio”.
Engineers last week used vast air tanks attached to the ship's sides to float the liner, which rose above the waves deck by deck to reveal gaping windows, a rust-tainted bow and the faded Costa Concordia emblem on its flanks.
Pablo Lazaro, a 66-year-old Spanish survivor who had been on the cruise with his wife and stepson, said the terror of that night - with people throwing themselves into the icy sea in a bid to survive Ä would never leave him.
“When I was getting into the lifeboat amid all the chaos I thought this might be my last day alive,” he said as he gazed out at the wreck from the port.
Lazaro joined fellow survivors in throwing flowers into the sea at the shipwreck site in a solemn ceremony on Tuesday.
The body of Indian waiter Russel Rebello is still missing and there will be a search for his remains when the ship is dismantled.
The ship's captain Francesco Schettino is on trial for manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship before all the passengers had been evacuated - even though he has claimed that he fell into a lifeboat.
Dubbed Italy's “most hated man” by the Italian media after the disaster, he found himself in hot water again on Tuesday after photographs emerged of him partying on the island of Ischia while the final preparations were being made to tow away the wreck.
Four other crew members and an executive from the Costa Crociere, the biggest cruise operator in Europe and part of the US giant Carnival, have already plea-bargained and been convicted on lesser charges.
- Ella IDE, Sapa-AFP