Costa Concordia: An incredible tragedy
By Max Rossi
4 o’clock on a Saturday morning, a confused call told me a cruise ship had run aground near the island of Giglio in the beautiful Italian region of Tuscany. My first reaction was “I can’t go!”, Pope Benedict was waiting for me to take pictures of him shaking hands with the new Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti in his private library at the Vatican. No way could I leave that event uncovered but the bad thing was that I was the only staff photographer in Rome – just 150 km (90 miles) from the ship.
A stringer photographer, Remo Casilli, was sent there immediately and he was able to get pictures of the survivors still covered in their blankets at Santo Stefano harbor and the first images of the ship lying on its side near the island. I spent the hours before the meeting with the Pope trying to get in touch with some photographers on the island, and finally, thanks to Facebook, got the phone number of a member of local news agency Giglio News to provide us with the first night images of the ship in the Giglio Harbour.
In the meantime chief photographer Stefano Rellandini was also searching and filing to to our global desk in Singapore whatever images we found. Saturday afternoon was spent coordinating and editing our stringer pictures from the island. I left Rome on Sunday morning and arrived on the island around 3 in the afternoon due to a long waiting list for the ferry in Santo Stefano harbor. I had the only car on the ferry. The rest were rescue vehicles.
After half an hour at sea I saw the ship for the first time. From a distance it looked like a cigarette lost by Polyphemus (the son of Poseidon and Thoosa in Greek mythology) after taking a bath in the crystal clear waters of Giglio island! When the ferry swung close to the ship as it turned into the port, I found myself taking pictures and speaking to myself at the same time: “Man, this is incredible! Who was the captain of this ship? Mickey Mouse?” Looking at this 300-meter-long ship lying on its side along the rocky shore was an unforgettable scene.
My Canon wireless device was spooling to our editing software Paneikon and Stefano edited the photos as my car was still parked on the ferry. I just kept going all day and part of the night.
The scene on the island was confusing as rescue workers concentrated their efforts on searching for survivors trapped inside the ship. As a Reuters photographer, my goal was to describe the best I could the scene in front of my eyes, and try to give readers the most accurate portrayal possible in a newspaper or online. This meant shooting panoramic top views, small details, night scenes, and the activity of rescue workers.
The main problem I had was finding a place to eat, and then trying to get some sleep in the freezing cold apartment we found that had no winter heating. Food was a nightmare, and as an Italian and a big man, I like food. Giglio is a summer resort, but in the winter there’s only one coffee bar and one little restaurant open, which had been taken over by rescue teams for their workers. There was no way to eat a meal so I settled for just two little pieces of pizza at the little bar.
It was really cold at night as our apartment, which we shared with a text reporter, had no radiators. The humidity in the rooms was awful. Getting into bed felt like taking a shower, so we all slept fully clothed, and with a wool hat on our heads.
The next day I was able to reach the rock just next to the ship three hours before police shut off the area for good. The rest of the day was spent higher up, from a top-view vantage point with a 600mm lens, waiting for survivors or bodies to be retrieved from the ship. It was a gruesome task, but it was a part of the story. Nobody was found on that day because the ship was moving around on the sea floor, forcing the rescue teams to suspend their search.
The first body was retrieved the day after and it was a sad picture.
After 4 days, I was replaced by my colleagues Giampiero Sposito and Paul Hanna. Visually speaking, this was a wonderful kind of assignment for a photographer. It was challenging to find perspective, and it was important to be in contact with Rome about breaking news that was coming in. If you stand on top of a mountain for 10 hours with virtually no news from the reporters, then you don’t take the right pictures to go with the news. So, many thanks to Stefano and Tony Gentile for their vital help.