Costa Concordia cruise ship detaches from reef

A complex system of pulleys and counterweights on Monday began lifting the Costa Concordia cruise ship from its side on a Tuscan reef where it capsized in 2012, an anxiously awaited operation that has never been attempted before on such a huge liner.

The crippled vessel wouldn't budge for some three hours after the operation to right it began, engineer Sergio Girotto told reporters. But after 6,000 tons of force were applied, "we saw the detachment'' of the ship from the reef using undersea cameras, Girotto said.

He said the cameras did not immediately reveal any sign of two bodies that were never recovered from among the 32 people who died during the disaster.

The operation was expected to take some 10-12 hours, with the initial hours winching the ship off the reef imperceptible to the unaided eye.

The operation began three hours later than planned after an early morning storm pushed back the scheduled positioning of a floating command room center close to the wreckage. Once it was in place, engineers using remote controls began guiding a synchronized leverage system of pulleys, counterweights and huge chains looped under the Concordia's carcass to delicately nudge the ship free from its rocky seabed perch just outside Giglio Island's harbor.

The goal is to raise it from its side by 65 degrees to vertical, as a ship would normally be, for eventual towing.

The operation, known in nautical parlance as parbuckling, is a proven method to raise capsized vessels.

The USS Oklahoma was parbuckled by the U.S. military in 1943 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But the 300-meter (1,000-foot), 115,000-ton Concordia has been described as the largest cruise ship ever to capsize and subsequently require the complex rotation.

The Concordia crashed into a reef on a winter's night Jan. 13, 2012 after the captain steered the luxury liner too close to the rocky coastline of Giglio, part of a chain of islands in pristine waters.

For over a year, residents of the fishing island have watched from shore as cranes and barges have moved into place to try to remove the hulk from their port. A few dozen gathered Monday morning on a breakwater to witness the operation getting under way, while others glimpsed it from shore as they went about their daily business.

"We're Holding Our Breath,'' read the headline in Monday's Il Tirreno daily. One woman walking her dog near the harbor sported a T-shirt that said in English "Keep Calm and Watch the Parbuckling Project.''

"There is a little tension now. The operation is very complex,'' said Giovanni Andolfi, a 63-year-old resident who spent his career at sea working on tankers and cruise ships and watched the operation from port.

Asked how long it would take for people on shore to see the ship making significant movement toward the vertical, engineer Girotto said that "after a couple of hours, you should be able to see something visible from a distance.''

Engineers had predicted those first couple of hours would be critical, as pieces of the granite seabed were embedded in the hull and divers had never been able to fully inspect the area.

Despite the violent capsizing, no major pollution had been detected in the waters near the ship. Fuel was siphoned out early in the salvage operation, but food and human waste are still trapped inside. Should the Concordia break apart during the rotation, or spew out toxic materials as it is raised, absorbent barriers were set in place to catch any leaks.

Engineers though have dismissed as "remote'' the possibility that the Concordia might break apart and no longer be sound enough to be towed to the mainland to be turned into scrap.

The reef sliced a 70-meter-long (230-foot) gash into what is now the exposed side off the hull, letting seawater rush in. The resulting tilt was so drastic that many lifeboats couldn't be launched. Dozens of the 4,200 passengers and crew were plucked to safety by helicopters or jumped into the sea and swam to shore. Bodies of many of the dead were retrieved inside the ship, although two bodies were never found and might lie beneath the hulk.

The Concordia's captain is on trial on the mainland for alleged manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship during the chaotic and delayed evacuation. Capt. Francesco Schettino claims the reef wasn't on the nautical charts for the liner's weeklong Mediterranean cruise.

Parbuckling was supposed to begin before dawn, but daylight broke even before the barge carrying the engineers close to the ship could leave shore. After the storm blew away, seas were calm.

Costa Crociere SpA, the Italian unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp., is picking up the tab for the parbuckling and its intricate preparation. The company puts the costs so far at 600 million euros ($800 million), though much of that will be passed onto its insurers.

Despite the disaster, locals have come to appreciate the crews who have spent more than a year working on the wreckage; they have mingled with locals and contributed to their economy, renting out hotel rooms and vacation apartments that would otherwise have gone vacant during the winter months.

Andolfi, the seaman, called the crews "the best brains in the field.'' But he was eager to see them finish.

"I would like Giglio to return to what it was before, a beautiful place of uncontaminated nature,'' he said.

- AP

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