Italian firms gambling on Costa Concordia salvage operation

ROME — The Globe and Mail

An aerial view shows the Costa Concordia as it lies on its side next to Giglio Island taken from an Italian navy helicopter August 26, 2013. The wrecked Costa Concordia cruise ship could be upright again next week, nearly two years after the liner capsized and killed at least 30 people off the Italian coast. The giant vessel, which has lain partly submerged in shallow waters off the Tuscan island of Giglio since the accident in January 2012, will be rolled off the seabed and onto underwater platforms. (ALESSANDRO BIANCHI/REUTERS)

The Costa Concordia wreck and the behaviour of its captain, who abandoned the ship ahead of many of the passengers, have been an embarrassment to Italians. But to Italy’s technology and fabrication industries, the wreck has been a source of pride.

The specialized engineering works designed to remove the Costa Concordia from a granite ledge next to the Tuscan island of Giglio will be tested in front of a global audience as early as Monday, when, weather permitting, the enormous cruise liner is to be winched upright and refloated.

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The unprecedented and highly delicate operation, whose costs are rising to $800-million (U.S.), is a one-shot-only event that cannot be reversed after it starts.

If the highly sophisticated salvage systems work, their designers and operators will be heroes. If they don’t – and there is some chance the rotting hulk of one of the world’s biggest cruise ships will break apart as it’s rotated – Italy will face another embarrassment.

“The size of the ship and her location make this the most challenging salvage I’ve ever worked on,” Nick Sloane, 52, the South African salvage master who is in charge of the operation, said at a media conference in Rome Thursday.

But Mr. Sloane and his Italian engineering colleagues have downgraded the odds of failure, even if they won’t attach a figure to it. (Early this year, Mr. Sloane was saying the odds of success were 70 per cent).

“We have left nothing to chance,” said Franco Gabrielli, the Italian government’s deputy commissioner for the Costa Concordia emergency.

The salvage team insists the failure odds are diminishing because extra precautions that were not part of the original plan has been taken, such as fitting two “blister tanks” to the bow of the 290-metre-long ship.

Built by Italy’s Fincantieri, the same shipyard that built the Costa Concordia in 2005, the tanks stabilize the bow, acting like a neck brace, as it is rotated from 65 degrees to vertical. They are considered a marvel of engineering. Already attached to the Costa Concordia, the tanks, which are 23 metres long and 20 metres high, along with their frames and assorted structures weigh about 1,700 tons. That’s equivalent to the weight of 71/2 Statues of Liberty.

The Costa Concordia went aground off Giglio on the evening of Jan. 13, 2012. The disaster occurred after the ship, under the command of Captain Francesco Schettino, ventured too close to the island and struck a reef, slashing a 70-metre hole in the hull. The ship listed badly and crashed onto a sloping granite ledge just off Giglio’s main port.

Thirty passengers were confirmed dead. Another two are still officially listed as missing, their remains thought to be under the hull of the wreck. Mr. Schettino is on trial for manslaughter and abandoning the ship.

The year and a half of preparations for the ship’s rotation have taken on the air of a national engineering and construction project, with tiny Giglio as its technology test lab.

Some 150 companies, most of them Italian, are involved in the Costa Concordia’s salvage. They range from giant Micoperi, the Italian underwater engineering company, to little 2G Robotics of Waterloo, Ont., which developed the underwater laser scanners that will provide the salvage team with a detailed analysis of the hull as the rotation forces put it under enormous pressure.

More than 30,000 tons of steel – four times the weight of the Eiffel Tower – have been bashed into the steel structures required to rotate the ship and keep it from sinking after it reaches the vertical position. They include the steel in the undersea platforms that will hold the ship in place after it is righted and the “sponsons,” the 11 box-like buoyancy tanks, some the height of an 11-storey building, that were attached to the port side of the hull.

The entire rotation, known as parbuckling, will take as long as 12 hours and will be controlled and monitored by a dazzling array of computers and gadgets that will do everything from activating the powerful jacks that will tilt the ship to processing the information delivered by the undersea robots.

In the end, all this dazzling engineering and technology will have to work perfectly to prevent a second Costa Concordia disaster.

What Mr. Sloane worries about most is not the machines. It’s bad weather, like last year’s autumn storms that made salvage preparation work next to impossible and whose large waves actually shifted the wreck. “The weather is the single biggest risk to this operation,” he said.

Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

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