The Costa Concordia’s salvage boss, Nicholas Sloane, knows he has one chance, and one chance only, to refloat the monster ship and send it on its last voyage to a scrapyard in Sicily.
Mr. Sloane, the amiable South African manager who is regarded as one of the world’s leading shipwreck fixers, told hundreds of reporters and TV crews that the effort to rotate the ship is an all or nothing game, even if the beast slips or breaks apart during the highly delicate process. If things go wrong, Giglio’s near pristine waters will face an unprecedented ecological disaster.
“Once you start, you cannot go back,” he said during the press meeting Saturday on the Italian island of Giglio, one day short of the first anniversary of the disaster that killed 32 passengers, two of whom are still trapped in or under the ship.
About 430 men and women from 19 countries – divers, engineers, welders, cement pourers, computer technicians – are working around the clock to prepare for the rotation, known as “parbuckling,” in the biggest salvage attempt in nautical history. It is scheduled to take place some time in June.
The rotation itself will take about seven hours, as a series of Herculanean hydraulic jacks, each with 1,000 tonnes of pulling force, do their grunt work. The 4,000-passenger ship lies two-thirds submerged at a 65 degree angle on a sloping granite ledge just beyond the port of Giglio, 16 kilometres off the Tuscan coast.
Mr. Sloane, who has salvaged about two dozen shipwrecks in his career, said the rotation process cannot be stopped because of the extreme weight of the ship – 114,000 tonnes – which does not include the 12,000 tonnes or so of “free” water in the upper decks, which will slosh around with an almighty force as the ship rotates.
“Once you get to a certain angle, gravity continues to take over and you can’t stop it,” he said. “These machines are pulling machines. They can’t go into slack [mode to stop the rotation].”
Mr. Sloane puts the chances of refloating the Costa Concordia, which at 290 metres long was Italy’s biggest cruise ship, at about 70 per cent. But that does not mean there is a 30 per cent chance of failure on parbuckling day itself; it means there is 30 per cent chance of failure between now and that day. A lot could go wrong before June. Mr. Sloane’s biggest worry is that a freak storm could twist the ship, potentially causing it to break in half or make it slip off its subsea shelf.
The salvage crews and the 800 or so permanent residents of Giglio went into a near panic on Oct. 31, when sea swells of four to five metres flexed the ship, sinking it about half a metre. The salvage team is not sure the ship could withstand sustained swells of six metres or more and storms of that intensity hit the area in 2008. “We worry about a sirocco storm from the southeast,” he said in an interview on the evening before the press conference.
The residents of Giglio are nervous about the refloating odds. After a year of daily reminders of the fatal shipwreck, which lies in plain view from the Giglio’s port and main town, and suffering hordes of “disaster tourists,” they want the ship gone. “We want to return to the way life was on January 12, 2012,” said deputy mayor Mario Pellegrini, 50, who boarded the ship on the night after the disaster to save stranded passengers, becoming a Costa Concordia hero. “We just want our normal life back.”
On Sunday, ceremonies, concerts and church masses will be held in honour of the shipwreck’s victims. It will finish in the evening, with the launch of 32 lanterns.