Italian island readies for record-breaking ship salvage

The wreck of Italy's Costa Concordia cruise ship near the harbour of Giglio Porto on September 15, 2013 (AFP, Andreas Solaro)

GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy — The Italian island of Giglio made final preparations Sunday on the eve of an unprecedented attempt to raise the 114,500-ton Costa Concordia cruise ship from its watery grave.
Salvage workers could be seen fixing the giant metal chains and cables that will hoist up the wreck measuring 290 metres (951 feet) in length, roughly the equivalent of three football fields.
The civil protection agency, which is overseeing the project, gave its final go-ahead on Sunday, saying the weather forecast looked favourable.
The biggest salvage of a passenger ship ever attempted is to begin shortly after 6:00 am (0400 GMT) on Monday and could last up to 12 hours.
“Tomorrow we will show that everything we have imagined, thought of and calculated will happen as planned,” Franco Gabrielli, head of the civil protection agency, told reporters on the island.
Once the Costa Concordia is upright, the plan is to stabilise it, refloat it and then tow it away for scrapping in a shipyard early next year.
The South African leader of the operation, Nick Sloane, has warned it is now or never for the Costa Concordia because the hull is gradually weakening and might not survive another winter.
The project so far has cost more than 600 million euros ($798 million) and one of the insurance companies picking up the tab estimates the bill could run to $1.1 billion.
The ship has been lying on its side in shallow waters just off the shoreline of Giglio ever since it hit rocks near the island and keeled over with 4,229 people on board in January 2012.
Thirty-two people lost their lives in the crash — allegedly caused by captain Francesco Schettino ordering a risky “salute” manoeuvre near the island in a show of bravado.
Using giant cement sacks and a custom-made metal platform, salvagers have so far secured the rusting hulk, which was threatening to slip from its resting place into deeper waters.
The plan is to drag it up using cables and pulleys — a complex operation that environmentalists warn could spill thousands of tons of toxic waste into the pristine waters.
The hull could bend as it is being hoisted but the civil protection agency has ruled out the possibility of the ship splitting in two.
All maritime traffic will be blocked in what is one of Europe’s biggest marine sanctuaries until the operation, known as a “parbuckling”, is over.
The salvage holds special significance for islanders whose lives were turned upside down by the tragedy, and a special prayer for the project was said at Sunday mass in a local church.
“This has been far too big an event for a little island like ours,” said Antonia Rum, owner of a maritime clothing shop on Giglio.
The local economy depends on tourism and locals say the wreck has discouraged summer visitors.
Sloane, who will be giving the orders, said the ship will initially be dragged up for four or five hours before gravity takes over and it begins to right itself on its own.
Giant metal tanks the size of 11-storey buildings have been fixed onto the side of the ship currently exposed and will act as brakes to prevent it from flipping over too far.
Once the rollover is completed, workers will weld more tanks or “sponsons” onto the side of the ship that is currently under water.
These will act as giant flotation devices to eventually allow the vessel to be towed away.
The salvage has been delayed repeatedly, mainly due to the difficulties of drilling into the granite seabed to install a supporting structure.
The project is financed by the insurers of the ship’s owner Costa Crociere, which is Europe’s biggest cruise operator and part of the leading company in the sector, the US-based Carnival.
Four crew members and the head of Costa Crociere’s crisis unit were handed short prison sentences earlier this year after negotiating plea bargains over their role in the crash.
Schettino — dubbed “Captain Coward” and “Italy’s most hated man” in the press — is on trial accused of manslaughter and abandoning the liner before all its passengers had been evacuated.