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Costa Concordia salvage: Island celebrations and relief

By Barbie Latza Nadeau, special to CNN
September 17, 2013 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Costa Concordia ship was righted after a huge salvage effort off the island of Giglio
  • The people of Giglio see the operation as moving the beast off their shore, writes Nadeau
  • To the workers, it was a risky operation that succeeded, she says

Editor's note: Barbie Latza Nadeau is the Rome bureau chief for Newsweek Daily Beast and a contributor to CNN. She is working on a novel based on the Costa Concordia disaster.

Giglio, Italy (CNN) -- Long before the sun came up over the newly vertical Costa Concordia cruise liner, a little party was going on in Giglio harbor.

It was just after 4am and the team of highly specialized salvage experts, who were feeling proud about the unprecedented rotation of the massive vessel that crashed on Giglio's shores in January 2012, were making their way to the dock from the control room where they'd spent the last 19 hours.

When the Concordia finally came to rest on the platforms 30 meters below water at exactly 4am, the salvage vessels in the harbor blew their horns in celebration -- which summoned the villagers who came to the port.

Tugboats tow the wreck of the Costa Concordia as it leaves Italy's Giglio Island on Wednesday, July 23. Two and a half years after running aground, the Costa Concordia cruise ship is being to be towed north to the Italian port at Genoa to be dismantled. Thirty-two people died in the disaster that drew global attention.
Tugboats tow the wreck of the Costa Concordia as it leaves Italy's Giglio Island on Wednesday, July 23. Two and a half years after running aground, the Costa Concordia cruise ship is being to be towed north to the Italian port at Genoa to be dismantled. Thirty-two people died in the disaster that drew global attention.
The Costa Concordia disaster
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Photos: The Costa Concordia disaster Photos: The Costa Concordia disaster

It escaped no one that a similar scene played out 20 months earlier when the Concordia first came to rest on the rocky shores.

Only this time, instead of carrying blankets and warm clothes for the shipwreck victims, they carried champagne bottles for the salvage crews.

INTERACTIVE: How ill-fated cruise liner was raised from Italian seabed

Captain Richard Habib, the director of Titan Salvage, which is leading the mammoth $800 million operation, was standing on shore in a well-worn gray Titan jumpsuit, to thank his team personally.

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He looked every bit like one of the workers and not at all like the big boss coming in from Florida. "We've worked on this for the last 18 months, and our efforts paid off well," Habib later told CNN as he sipped a celebratory beer with workers at the Bar Fausto on the portside. "It came together well."

READ: What's inside of wrecked cruise ship?

Habib, himself a salvage master, stepped aside while the star of this particular show, Nick Sloane, the 52-year-old South African in charge of the Concordia salvage, and his key team took center stage. And what a stage it was. As the team walked from the port to the Fausto, the crowds cheered and rushed to hug them.

Many popped champagne bottles and passed them around, almost as if the home team had just won the Superbowl. Many of the salvage workers sat at the outdoor tables, just like they do after every shift and wondered just what all the fuss was about. "It's just a job," said one of the Scottish workers. "I can't believe they are all here at this hour waiting for us."

In fact, the people of Giglio see the rotation, or parbuckling, of the Costa Concordia liner very differently than the salvage team that pulled off the feat. For the workers, it was a risky operation that succeeded. But for the Giglese, it is the first concrete step towards moving the beast from the island's shore.

READ: How cruise ship tragedy transformed an island paradise

Throughout the day on Monday when the Concordia slowly rolled to vertical, the islanders watched and waited and paced up and down the port like nervous parents before a birth. Many of them lined the hills above the wreck with binoculars and time-lapse cameras to capture the event.

When the morning sun finally rose to show the Concordia's twisted and bent starboard side, the horror of the wreck suddenly seemed more real than even the night it happened.

For 20 months, the ship had been melded to its rocky underwater perch. When it was peeled off, it exposed a scene that looked something like a cross between an earthquake and a bomb.

Soggy curtains hung limp in the broken windows, deck chairs were imbedded into the stateroom walls. One lone lifeboat that had been smashed into the ship's carcass looked as flat as a painting hanging on the wall.

Suitcases and dingy brown stained bedding were pressed up against the few windows that were still intact. The stateroom balconies were folded up against the ship's outer wall, some trapping deck chairs against the cabin doors.

Islanders mingled with journalists who studied the wreckage from every possible angle exchanging binoculars and long-lens cameras to get a better view, pointing out bizarre details of a scene that literally petrified the moment the ship crashed into the rocky shore.

It was a surreal scene, and one made even more poignant by the fact that the other half of the ship was still pristine white, almost as if the ship was wearing a half-white, half-black masquerade mask. There was nothing to do but stare.

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