The Costa Concordia is vertical 20 months after it smashed into reef off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, killing 32 passengers and casting shame on an entire nation but making a hero of its salvage master.
The salvage team led by South Africa’s Nick Sloane announced at 4 a.m. local time Tuesday that “the parbuckling operation has been successfully completed. The wreck is now upright and resting safely on the specially built artificial seabed at a depth of approximately 30 metres.”
Mr. Sloane, 52, and his “Magnificent 11” members of his command boat team came ashore shortly after 4 a.m., local time, to a throng of journalists and ecstatic islanders who congratulated him. “It was a good challenge and it’s not over yet, but it’s at least as we planned it,” he said with characteristic understatement.
Though he announced that he was in sore need of “some sleep” after the 19-hour rotation, he and his team promptly disappeared into Giglio’s little Da Fausto bar, where they celebrated by drinking scotch and beer while the police kept the enthusiastic mob at a distance.
The successful rotation of the Costa Concordia marks the high point of a career that began in the early 1980s, when he helped to prevent the burning Spanish tanker, the Castillo de Bellver, from spreading crude oil in South African waters.
“Parbuckling” refers to the 65-degree rotation of the ship, a highly complex, delicate and expensive operation that began at about 9 a.m. Monday and went hours late.
The operation’s success triggered an outpouring of congratulations from the public to the salvage team members and from members to themselves. About 500 salvage workers were employed on Giglio, using equipment from 150 Italian and international companies, including at least one Canadian technology firm that provided subsea sensors.
“The Costa is in an upright position,” said Michael Thamm, the chief executive officer of the Costa Group, the cruise company that owns the Costa Concordia. “Great achievements can be made in this country if we work together.”
Giglio residents were delighted that the ship went upright without breaking up and spilling its potentially toxic contents, including dozens of tonnes of rotted meat, fish, dairy products and cooking oils.
“We are all very happy,” Margherita Cavero, a local shopkeeper, said Tuesday morning. “They have all worked hard and risked their lives to liberate us from this stupidity.”
The unprecedented salvage has been the most expensive and technologically challenging, in history and the costs, already double the original estimate, continue to climb. That’s because many months of work have to be done to stabilize the 290-metre-long ship, refloat it and tow it to a shipyard to be broken apart. “We are somewhere in the region of €600-million [$800-million U.S.], but it’s getting more,” Mr. Thamm said. “We are partially insured but the insurance will not cover the full amount … We will pay what is required to be paid.”
Some estimates from reinsurers, such as Munich Re of Germany, estimate the final bill at $1-billion or more.
The ship, in plain view from the harbour of Giglio, about 16 kms west of the Italian mainland, has extensive damage on its starboard side. Near the bow, the ship is crushed from top to bottom. A smaller, though still enormous, indentation can be seen near the stern of the 290-metre-long ship.
The damage is the result of the Costa Concordia’s resting position on a sloping granite reef. The reef’s two ridges slowly collapsed those two sections of the hull. The salvage team, aware of the “deformations,” feared the wreck would not survive another winter in the sea, pounded by waves. If it were to slide off the reef, its organic contents would have triggered an ecological disaster.
The ship is two-thirds submerged in its vertical position. It must be stabilized, after which a series of giant flotation tanks are to be installed on its starboard side. If all goes to plan, the Costa Concordia will be towed to a scrapyard in the spring, though the destination is still unknown because most shipyards in the region are not big enough to handle a ship of such enormous dimensions. Mr. Sloane said he will be on the ship’s last voyage.
After the ship is stabilized, Italian police and investigators will enter the hulk to look for evidence in the criminal trial against Francesco Schettino, the captain who left the ship ahead of some its crew and passengers after it struck a reef off Giglio on the night of Jan. 13, 2012. He was widely condemned as a coward and is on trial for manslaughter and abandoning the ship.
After the disaster, Italy went into a collective funk. The salvage led by Mr. Sloane, which involved 150 companies, mostly Italian, and 500 workers, from welders to scuba divers, has restored some of Italy’s lost pride.
The front-page headline of a local newspaper, Il Tirreno, called the successful salvage of the wreck “The redemption of a country on its knees” (Globe and Mail translation).
By early Tuesday morning, the bodies of the two missing passengers who were thought to have been trapped in a lifeboat under the starboard side of the hull had not been found. Underwater robots that have been circling the hull may locate the remains in the next few days, though it is possible they may be inside the ship.
The salvage officials said some of the previously submerged cabins and corridors of the ship could now be explored. They also plan to return any contents of the cabins’ safe boxes, such as jewels, to their owners.
The Costa Concordia is resting on a vast artificial seabed of grout bags and steel platforms. The steel bed alone is the length of 1-½ football fields. In total almost 30,000 tonnes of steel was used to build all the components to rotate and refloat the ship, making it one of Italy’s biggest engineering projects.