Genoa (Italy) (AFP) - Ship horns blared Sunday as the wrecked Costa Concordia cruise liner limped 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 port after a four-day, 280 kilometre (175 mile) journey from the disaster site off the Tuscan island of Giglio.
"This is not a runway show. It's the end of a story in which many people died, which none of us will ever forget," Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said as he gazed up at the ship's towering white flanks, tinged with rust, looming over the quayside.
"I have come to say thank you to those who have done something that everyone said was not possible," he said.
Fears that 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.
Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti said it was time to "finally breathe a sigh of relief".
The once-luxury liner arrived overnight and weighed anchor around two nautical miles offshore, where engineers attached it to several tugboats that manoeuvred it into Genoa's Voltri port at 1000 GMT.
"It's a beautiful sight, exceptional. We're really emotional and proud," said one of a group of engineers who spent months preparing the ship for its final voyage.
Crowds of curious locals gathered 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.
Interior furnishings and fittings will be stripped out to make the vessel light enough to tow into the scrapping area, where it will be divided into three parts for dismantling.
Workers will start by removing what is left of beds, televisions, fridges and sofas in once-resplendent cabins and glitzy restaurants, bars and casinos.
- A bad omen -
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 salvage operation to recover the Concordia was the biggest ever attempted and is expected to cost in the region of 1.5 billion euros ($2.0 billion).
The remains of the 114,500-tonne liner will not simply be thrown away: more than 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 -- or possibly for building a new ship -- while undamaged copper wiring, plumbing, plastics, machinery and furniture will be 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 liner hit the rocks -- may end up in a museum.
One of the first tasks will be to search for the body of Indian waiter Russel Rebello, whose remains were never found and may have been trapped in a previously inaccessible part of the ship.
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 that was swung against the hull failed to smash, a bad omen in seagoing lore.
Images of the vast vessel on its side off Giglio went viral around the world, and its captain Francesco Schettino was dubbed Italy's "most hated man" 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.