GENOA - The wrecked Costa Concordia cruise ship limped Sunday into the Italian port of Genoa to be scrapped two and a half years after it capsized in a tragedy that claimed 32 lives.
The hulking vessel about twice the size of the Titanic was towed into the northern port after a four-day, 280 kilometre (175 mile) journey from the disaster site off the Tuscan island of Giglio.
"We can finally breathe a sigh of relief," Italy's Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti told journalists.
Fears the damaged hull would break up under the strain, spilling toxic waste into Europe's biggest marine sanctuary, proved unfounded, and dolphins joined the convoy of environmental experts in welcoming the ship into Genoa.
The once-luxury liner arrived overnight and weighed anchor around two nautical miles (3.6 kilometres) off shore, where engineers attached it to a series of tugboats which manoeuvred it into Genoa's Voltri port at 1000 GMT.
Civil protection agency chief Franco Gabrielli told journalists a high wind was slowing the delicate operation and the ship was not expected to be secured until around 1400 GMT.
Once it is fastened in place, interior furnishings and fittings will be stripped out of the ship to make it light enough to tow into the scrapping area, where it will be divided into three parts for dismantling.
Crowds of curious locals gathered near the port on the outskirts of Genoa at first light, eager to see the remains of the battered ship, which crashed into rocks off Giglio island in January 2012 with 4,229 people from 70 countries on board.
Built in 2005 in the Sestri Ponente Finantieri yard in Genoa, the Concordia was the largest Italian cruise ship in history at the time of its launch -- but was considered unlucky by some from the start.
At a floating ceremony in 2006 attended by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone -- Pope Benedict XVI's number two -- the bottle of champagne swung agaist the hull failed to smash, a bad omen in seagoing lore.
Images of the vast vessel toppled on its side off Giglio in January 2012 went viral around the world, and its captain Francesco Schettino was dubbed Italy's "most hated man" by local media after he escaped in a lifeboat while terrified passengers threw themselves into the icy sea.
Schettino is currently on trial for manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, and abandoning the vessel before all passengers had evacuated.
The salvage operation to recover the Concordia was the biggest ever attempted and is expected to cost in the region of 1.5 billion euros ($2.01 billion).
For Genoa -- former maritime power and home to explorer Christopher Columbus -- the contract to dismantle the ship is a welcome boost in a period of economic crisis, creating hundreds of jobs in the city for a 22-month period.
The remains of the 114,500-tonnes Concordia will not simply be thrown away: over 80 percent of it is expected to be recycled or reused.
Between 40,000 and 50,000 tonnes of steel will be melted down and reused in the construction industry, while undamaged copper wiring, plumbing, plastics, machinery and furniture will recovered and sold on.
Personal belongings recovered on the lower decks will be returned to owners while items such as the ship's piano -- which was being played as the ship hit the rocks -- may end up in a museum.
One of the first tasks will be to search for the body of one of the victims, Indian waiter Russel Rebello, whose remains were never found and may have been trapped in a part of the vessel previously inaccessible to salvage crew.
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