Giglio Island (Italy) (AFP) - Italy's once-luxurious Costa Concordia cruise liner 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.
Sunshine streamed down on the Mediterranean bay where hundreds of onlookers watched as the final cable attaching ship to shore was cut, finally severing ties between the Tuscan island of Giglio and the ship two and a half years after its capsize claimed 32 lives.
"We've done it! She's off!" shouted salvage specialists in hard hats who popped champagne bottles and sprayed the crowd, while tourists cheered and church bells rang out as the ship was pulled away.
"It's hard not to get emotional," said Franco Porcellacchia, an engineer with ship owner Costa Crociere.
"Today, Giglio is once again ours," a local man, visibly relieved to see the back of the Concordia, told AFP.
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 18-man crew aboard the Concordia, a dozen accompanying vessels, and two giant tug boats pulling the wreckage at a speed of just two knots (3.7 kilometres, 2.3 miles) per hour -- is expected to reach Genoa in four days.
"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, said.
Franklin Fitzgerald, 35, an industrial diver from Texas, called his work on the Concordia "one of the proudest moments of my career. It's a very happy day for all of us," he told AFP.
- 'We can finally go our way' -
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 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.
Surviving passengers who returned to Giglio for the final farewell, said they are ready to put the nightmare 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.
After leaving Giglio around 0900 GMT, the Concordia was just southeast of the island of Elba by around 1630 GMT.
- A billion-euro operation -
In what Costa Crociere estimates is a billion-euro salvage operation -- excluding the cost of its ultimate disposal -- the Costa Concordia is being towed by Dutch- and Vanuatu-flagged boats, while the flotilla carries divers, specialist engineers, a medical team and environmental experts.
Close to 500 workers from around the globe have camped out for years in Giglio working toward the refloating and salvage of the vessel.
Sensors attached to its sides 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 20-year 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".
At a press conference here on Wednesday, Italian Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti hailed Sloane as "our champion".
- One man still missing -
The body of Indian waiter Russel Rebello is still missing and there will be a search for his remains when the ship is dismantled.
Ship captain Francesco Schettino, dubbed Italy's "most hated man", is on trial for manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship before it had been evacuated -- even though he claimed he fell into a lifeboat.
He found himself in hot water again Tuesday after photographs emerged of him partying as preparations were being made for the towing.
Four other crew members and an executive from the Costa Crociere, part of the US giant Carnival, have already plea-bargained and been convicted on lesser charges.