After the wreck ... the big clean up

By Nick Squires

It is taking $488 million and a team of 450 experts to remove the evidence of Captain Schettino's blunder.

Francesco Schettino The Costa Concordia is impaled on two rocky spikes off the tourist beaches of Giglio Island. Photo / Gregorio Borgia
Francesco Schettino The Costa Concordia is impaled on two rocky spikes off the tourist beaches of Giglio Island. Photo / Gregorio Borgia

Like the Titanic, which sank 100 years ago, it has become a symbol of hubris, vanity and excess.

The Costa Concordia, a luxury cruise ship with a casino, a two-level fitness centre, spas, saunas, five restaurants, 13 bars and four swimming pools, capsized on January 13 this year after its captain catastrophically misjudged a "sail-past" of the Tuscan island of Giglio.

Captain Francesco Schettino, who is expected to be sent to trial for causing a shipwreck and abandoning the vessel, rammed the 290m vessel into a rocky shoal which he claims was not marked on his nautical charts.

The huge liner was carrying 4200 passengers and crew, whose week-long cruise of ports in the Western Mediterranean turned into a hellish night of panic and terror as they scrambled off the sinking ship.

Some piled into lifeboats, others inched down the listing hull like ants, a few leapt into the icy cold water. Thirty-two people lost their lives.

Now, nine months after the disaster, a new, crucial phase is about to begin in the Herculean task of lifting the ship off the seabed.

The operation is being conducted jointly by Titan, an American salvage firm, and Micoperi, an Italian offshore rig company, which were commissioned to do the job by Costa Cruises, the Genoa-based owner of the Concordia.

A multinational team of 450 engineers, divers and mariners has secured the ship to Giglio's rocky seashore with giant cables looped under its belly and attached to a series of landward anchor points.

They are about to embark on the daunting challenge of preparing the ship to be hauled upright and refloated so that it can be towed for demolition.

The duration and cost of the operation has already exceeded original estimates.

It is now expected to cost at least US$400 million ($488 million), rather than the US$300 million originally quoted, and is expected to be removed from the island by June at the earliest, rather than three months earlier, as first envisaged.

Everything about the salvage operation is on an epic scale.

"All the numbers are mind-blowing," said Captain Peter Bouchard, a British master mariner who was recruited from his home in Georgetown, Guyana.

"This operation is pushing the boundaries of marine technology. There is no other job this size in the world."

The ship is impaled on two huge granite outcrops which have pierced its hull. Beneath it is a gap measuring 10m deep and 50m across.

That has to be filled so the ship does not snap in two when it is hauled upright. To do that, sacks containing nearly 18,000 tonnes of cement will be positioned beneath the ship.

The cement will be funnelled into the bags through tubes by about 100 divers, assisted by seven underwater robots known as ROVs - remote operated vehicles, which are guided by fibre-optic wires.

The divers will work in shifts around the clock, eating and sleeping on board the Pioneer, a British supply ship that will produce 18,000 meals a month.

Ten decompression chambers will be available for divers who get into trouble underwater.

Salvage experts will then build six immense steel and concrete platforms, together the size of a rugby field, onto which the ship will be rolled.

The ship will be pulled upright with steel cables and hydraulic jacks attached to the underwater platform.

It will be given buoyancy by 15 giant "sponsons" or hollow compartments which will be welded onto its port side.

The largest of the compartments are more than 30m long - the height of an 11-storey building - and weigh up to 600 tonnes each.

Once the ship is upright, another 15 sponsons will be attached to its starboard side and it will be refloated.

It will then be towed away from Giglio by tugs, probably to be broken up for scrap in a nearby Italian port.

"To get the sponsons lined up exactly so that we can weld them on is no small feat," said Captain Nick Sloane, a South African who is in charge of the salvage operation.

"This is an unprecedented operation. It's the biggest ship recovery operation ever, by quite some margin."

As the recovery effort steps up in tempo, the inhabitants of Giglio are praying that it all goes smoothly.

The nightmare would be for the ship to break up during the operation, emptying a foul stew of rotted food, chemicals and decomposing furniture, mattresses and passengers' possessions into the island's pristine waters.

Giglio has already had one summer tourist season ruined by the presence of the wreck and islanders fear that as delays mount up, next summer will also be affected.

"The number of tourists who stayed on the island was down by 40 per cent this summer," said Silvano Ferraro, 36, who runs a bar on the harbour front of the island's picturesque port, a few hundred metres from the wreck.

"I think it will still be here next summer - especially if we get bad weather this winter, because that will delay the operation further."

Schettino appeared this month at a pre-trial hearing in Grosseto, the Tuscan city where the investigation into the disaster is being conducted, to face accusations of manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing a shipwreck.

As Italy waits to hear from the investigating judge whether he will be put on trial, the men charged with removing the rusting white hulk have plenty of time to mull how on earth the calamity could have happened.

"With a ship of that size, you'd start to get nervous if you were within a couple of nautical miles of the island, let alone a few hundred yards," said Ewan Anderson, a Shetland Islander who skippers a tug boat involved in the salvage.

"For him to get so close ... I can't comprehend what he was thinking."

- NZ Herald

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