By Steve Scherer
GIGLIO, Italy (Reuters) - She was found inside the ship's chapel, submerged up to her shoulders, but in one piece. Fire department divers wrapped her in a white towel, and used a nylon belt to hold it in place so she would not be damaged as they pulled her out.
On Saturday, the plaster statue of the Madonna from the doomed Costa Concordia cruise liner stood in a white tent on the port of Giglio, still wrapped in the same towel.
Found early on Friday morning, it was only shown to reporters on Saturday. Orange and black equipment bags were piled next to it, and helmets and diving gear hung behind.
The man in charge of the team which rescued the statue said he had taken the time to recover the relic when there were still 21 people missing because "it seemed like the right thing to do."
"When we entered the crumbled churches around L'Aquila after the earthquake, we always recovered the sacred objects," Fabio told Reuters, asking that his last name not be used.
Fabio, like many firefighters called to search the Concordia which capsized a week ago off the Tuscan coast, had worked in L'Aquila and the towns surrounding it after an earthquake killed more than 300 in 2009.
Symbols are important to a community, he said.
The Madonna is about a meter tall, wears a golden crown, and a white robe with a light blue border. A small baby Jesus lying on a pillow was also salvaged, and is sitting on a stool next to the figure of St. Mary.
"We also recovered the tabernacle with the host, and the crucifix," Fabio said. "We gave it to Giglio's parish priest."
The parish priest, Don Lorenzo Pasquotti, opened the doors of his church on the tiny island off the coast to more than 400 survivors when the ship was abandoned, and has put some objects they left on a small table near the altar - a life jacket, a hard hat, survival rations, and a half-eaten panettone cake.
They are not sacred objects, but reminders of recent acts of selfless charity and good will, he said.
Perhaps a fitting symbol of thanks, the tabernacle and the crucifix from the Concordia will remain in Giglio, where many are hoping and praying that the tragedy of the Concordia does not become an ecological disaster.
Salvage teams are ready to begin extracting the almost 2,400 tonnes of heavy oil and diesel fuel, which if spilled would spell disaster for the island's economy based on its pristine waters and beaches.
(editing by Elizabeth Piper)