By James Mackenzie
THE COSTA Concordia cruise liner on Monday inched slowly off the rock shelf where it has been stuck for more than 20 months, in a painstaking process to right the ship that looked set to continue late into the night.
As salvage teams concentrated on the biggest operation of its kind ever attempted, survivors of the Jan. 13, 2012 disaster – when the ship carrying more than 4,000 passengers and crew capsized off the Italian island of Giglio – thought of the 32 who died, including two whose bodies have yet to be found.
“Naturally, I think of those people who didn’t make it and especially for those two families who are still waiting to find the remains of their loved ones,” said Luciano Castro, a 49-year-old journalist who was on the ship when it sank.
“They must still be under the keel of the Concordia and I hope after this finally they will have a grave they can cry over.”
After a three-hour delay caused by an overnight storm, salvage crews started the so-called “parbuckling” operation at around 9.00 a.m. (0700 GMT) and by mid-afternoon had lifted the side of the vessel completely off the rock bed.
Still on its side, the ship was raised far enough out of the sea to reveal a dirty brown water mark staining the white hull.
“At this point we’re around half way through the first phase,” Franco Porcellacchia, leader of Costa Cruise’s technical team, told reporters. “It’s all happening very slowly but very carefully and safely.”
Officials declined to estimate how much longer the operation, originally scheduled to take 10-12 hours, may last but suggested it could continue well into the night.
“We never set any fixed time on it,” said Sergio Girotto, project leader for contractor Micoperi. “It could take 15 or 18 hours. The aim is to do it well.”
In contrast to the accident, a catalogue of mishap and misjudgement over which the Concordia’s captain Francesco Schettino faces multiple charges, the salvage operation has so far been a tightly coordinated engineering feat.
At a cost estimated so far at more than 600 million euros ($795 million), it is expected to be the most expensive maritime wreck recovery ever, accounting for more than half of an overall insurance loss of more than $1.1 billion.
A multinational team of 500 salvage engineers has been on Giglio for most of the past year, stabilising the wreck and preparing for the lifting operation.
Marine insurers who have to calculate the cost of covering a new breed of large cargo and cruise vessels will be watching the project on Giglio closely, as any problems could have a significant impact on future insurance contracts.
“We have done parbuckling before but never on a location like this,” Nick Sloane, the South African engineer coordinating the recovery for contractor Titan Salvage, told Reuters.
“She is on the side of a mountain on the seabed, balanced on two reefs and she is a really large ship – she’s three football fields long, a hundred thousand tonnes plus… So it’s never been done on this scale,” he said.
A series of 11 towers with hydraulic mechanisms controlling 205-kg (450 lb) cables under the ship and attached to its side slowly rotated the vessel, aiming to place it on six specially built platforms drilled into the granite rock bed.
As the sunken side of the vessel rose out of the water, engineers eased the pressure from the cables, preparing for a second phase, when huge tanks fixed to the ship’s exposed side begin filling with water, using gravity to help the effort.
Once the ship is upright, salvage teams will spend a number of months stabilising it and preparing for it to be re-floated with the aid of additional giant buoyancy tanks before it is towed away for scrap, probably in spring.
On Giglio, locals were hoping the ship which has given their Tuscan holiday island global fame would soon be gone.
Giancarlo Farni, who said he was one of the first rescuers on the scene, said: “I saw it sink and now I want to see it brought upright and taken away.”