Titanic Tales: The Costa Concordia

Photo: An oil removal ship is seen next to the Costa Concordia cruise ship as it ran aground off the west coast of Italy at Giglio island, January 16, 2012. Over-reliance on electronic navigation systems and a failure of judgement by the captain are seen as possible reasons for one of the worst cruise liner disasters of all time, maritime specialists say. (REUTERS/ Max Rossi)

When I read hastily the headlines on Jan 14—a shipwreck in Italy, seventy missing, three known dead—I immediately thought: it must be the Africans again. The refugees, the clandestine, the invisible, the nameless, the unwanted… Those "less-than-human" people coming from all over the world to the Italian coast, looking for a safe haven from dictatorships, from hunger.

My Somali Italian friend Suad, who works with her community In Italy now, urges her people in Somalia NOT to take that dangerous ride: even if you survive the trip, what waits for you in Italy can be fatal. Italy is in deep economic crisis today, on the verge of bankruptcy and social disorder. The new government struggling to remain a G8 power while the euro and United Europe are at stake. Italy also struggles to overcome a big moral value crisis after twenty years of Berlusconi's reign of sexism, racism, indolence and corruption.

But I was wrong about the Africans. It was a fancy cruise ship full of wealthy foreigners that wrecked unexpectedly near the island of Giglio.

The splendid Costa Concordia was 290 meters long, and had thirteen decks. The ship featured thirteen bars, five restaurants, four swimming pools and five hundred balconied staterooms.

One woman survivor testified: "It was horrible! The foreign crew was screaming in their language in panic. We broke the glass and then we fought each other to get the lifejackets."

"While we were eating dinner, the first course, the plates started to flow, the glasses all of a sudden to run and then the lights went off. Then we fell on top of each other. People were stampeding while the ship was turning upside down. Now I am trying to find a friend I lost. Her cell phone is ringing but she is not answering."

A young Serbian girl who worked in the ship's gift shop recalled:

"We had to unleash the lifeboats ourselves: the instructors who had taught us how to do that jumped into the boats. There were no signs of ship officers to calm the passengers. Eighty-year-old people in a panic were shoving children, and mothers with babies in arms, in order to save themselves…"

When passing the isle of Giglio, cruise ships often greet the inhabitants of the island with a honk of the ship's horn. They say the habit dates back to an old Italian ship captain who was from Giglio and was bidding his home goodbye. From the land, the illuminated ship looks beautiful, and from the ship it's romantic to see the dark shape of an island speckled with lights. But for the Costa Concordia, everything went wrong.

Every tragedy becomes romantic if it's the last day of your life. All ships that sink carry the aura of the Titanic. All big disasters reveal the good and bad in people tested by adversity: people transform into heroes or cowards, and you never know who lurks within your own self at that ghastly hour.

A son of two elderly parents on the ship — they had never left their home since their honeymoon years before — personally came with his whole family to rescue them. He managed to save his mother, but for his father, it was too late.

A quiet Korean honeymoon couple was found alive after two days of fear, hunger and cold.

An Italian actress, also a survivor, said: "I was like an idiot, completely lost! When this ship tipped over on its side I tried to stop it with my feet!" In a further irony, this actress had once starred in a film about the famous sinking of the Andrea Doria.

There were four thousand people on that cruise ship: mostly Italian and French, but also tourists from many other nations. Students on a training course, hairdressers who had won a competition excursion worth 100 000 euros, many retired people, handicapped people and children. A floating Babel of different languages and cultures: a ghost nation.

Once the Costa Concordia showed her bad karma, of course it was recalled that on the day of her launch, the bottle of champagne smashed against her bow did not break.

A bad omen.

The captain of the ship was arrested and accused of manslaughter. He was charged with abandoning his position of command by cravenly saving himself, reaching the coast where he was found on a rock while his passengers fought for their lives.

The captain, in his distress, claims that his maps did not show the "Ghost Rock" on which his ship foundered: but his crew tells a different story. A deliberate decision to cruise far too close to the coast, to the bella isola di Giglio…to whistle a fond goodbye!

Naturally the Italian social networks spread their wisecracks: That's what happens when you hit the rock of Italy, the sinking country!

Other tourist cities in Italy like Venice are changing the security rules for cruise ships. A potential ecological disaster lingers: the fuel tanks in the carcass of the Costa Concordia might rupture.

My dear friend, Maja Mitic, an actress and activist from Belgrade, was aboard the Costa Concordia. She was there on her honeymoon, and to celebrate Serbian New Years. She wrote this on her Facebook profile:

"Dear friends, Ljuba and I are finally home…. after cruising seven days on Costa Concordia where we spend our last night, Friday the 13th of January, like on the movie Titanic… thank you all for your messages… What does not kill you, make you stronger!"