Shaken survivors arrive on Italy cruise disaster island

GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy (AFP) - Shaken survivors and grieving relatives of the 32 victims of the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster began arriving on the island of Giglio for a one-year anniversary commemoration of the tragedy on Sunday.

"It's terrible coming back here," one survivor, Clara Stara, said in the tiny Italian port where the giant hulk of a ship twice as big as the Titanic still lies keeled over on its side. "I've been anxious since yesterday and I hadn't felt any fear for a whole year," she said.

Among the arrivals was the family of Erika Fani Soria Molina, a Peruvian waitress who died. "This is very difficult for us," said her sister Maddelein Soria, 35, as her father held back tears. "This is something that will stay with us our whole lives. I am here to pay tribute to my sister. I feel as if I am with her again," she told AFP.

Indian-born Kevin Rebello, whose brother worked as a waiter on the ship and is still officially reported missing, said: "It's not easy to return."

"I have still not found peace," he said.

French survivor Genevieve Bourgeois said she had come to the island for Rebello.

"I am here mainly because Russel was my waiter on board. And he's still in the boat," she said, her voice breaking.

The 290m liner crashed into a group of rocks just off Giglio, veered sharply and keeled over just as many passengers were sitting down for supper on the first night of a Mediterranean cruise.

There were 4,229 people from 70 countries on board.

Hundreds were forced to jump into the freezing waters after some of the lifeboats failed to deploy, while others climbed down a rope ladder across the hull in the dark to waiting boats.

Salvage workers have been labouring around the clock for months to stabilise the wreck and eventually refloat it and tow it away in an operation that has never been attempted before.

The removal has been hit by delays but the head of Italy's civil protection agency, Franco Gabrielli, said it would happen by September at the latest.

Franco Porcellacchia, an executive from ship owner Costa Crociere who is overseeing the project, said the budget had increased from US$300 million to US$400 million (S$367 million to S$490 million) and could rise further.

Mayor Sergio Ortelli said islanders were keen to welcome back those who lived through that night, even though Costa Crociere asked survivors to stay away from the commemoration because of logistics.

Many survivors sought shelter in local homes and a church in the port after being pulled shivering from the sea following a panicky evacuation.

"The idea is to exorcise a horrible episode, and to share the pain and drama of those who lost a loved one," Ortelli said.

"Many survivors and relatives of victims have returned to thank us, and share their memories with us. Some, a year on, still send us emails," he said.

The commemorations on Sunday will include replacing where it once stood the rock that the ship crashed into and tore away. There will then be a mass.

Father Lorenzo Pasquotti said he would display objects that survivors left behind - life jackets, emergency blankets, even discarded rolls of bread - next to the altar, underneath a Madonna statue salvaged from the ship's chapel.

Flowers and candles line the aisles of the church, where extra pews have been squeezed in for survivors, salvage workers and government officials.

A total of 10 people are under investigation in the tragedy, including the ship's infamous captain Francesco Schettino and three senior executives from Costa Crociere.

Schettino is accused of causing the crash through reckless seamanship, delaying the evacuation and then abandoning ship long before all the passengers had been rescued.

The captain says the crash was not his fault and claims that he tripped and fell into a lifeboat when the boat tilted and was directing the rescue operation from dry land.