For the people of the tiny Italian island of Giglio, the huge hulk of the stricken Costa Concordia cruise liner has been an ugly and painful reminder of the tragedy of 13 January 2012.
Its huge hulk, laying stranded in the waters off the Tuscan coast, brought back memories of the night when, despite the calm seas and favourable weather, the 290-metre long luxury ship came too close to the shore and ran aground, the rocks below the waterline tearing a 50-metre long hole in its side – a disaster that would claim the lives of 32 people on board.
But yesterday, the plan to refloat the wrecked Concordia was finally put into effect. Some were hopeful the raising of the vessel – one of the most ambitious salvage operations in history – would open a new chapter for Giglio. Others – namely the relatives of the two passengers whose bodies were never recovered – were hoping it would provide closure.
“I am filled with hope. I am still hoping to find my wife,” Elio Vincenzi, the widower of Maria Grazia Trecarichi, said. Ms Trecarichi was on the cruise to celebrate her 50th birthday with her 17-year-old daughter, one of the 4,000 people who managed to survive the deadly shipwreck, who came to the island yesterday to watch the crews at work. Russel Rebello, an Indian national, is still unaccounted for.
The operation marked the first time engineers have ever tried to lift such a huge ship so close to land. Plenty could go wrong – not least because of the precarious state of the hull, weakened after so long stranded at sea.
At 9am local time, a series of mighty cables – each weighing 25 tons – began pulling the huge vessel, twice as heavy as the Titanic, off its rocky ledge into an upright position. By 5pm, the Concordia, which had lain partially capsized at 65 degrees, had rotated upwards by 10 degrees. The emerging part of the starboard side that had spent 20 months submerged was marked by a dark layer of slime and algae. Shortly afterwards, engineering chiefs announced the operation to right the vast wreck might take twice as long as originally thought, and would probably not be complete before daybreak today.
Franco Porcellacchia, the director of technical operations at Concordia’s owner, Costa Cruises, said the final 20 degrees of rotation, using heavy water tanks to drag down the port side, would be the most hazardous. Earlier, however, the successful completion of the first major step – lifting the 114,500-ton wreck free of a rocky ledge – was announced by Sergio Girotto, an engineer for the project, which has so far cost €600m (£503m).
“The first hours were the most uncertain because we did not know how stuck the ship was,” Mr Girotto told reporters in the island’s tiny port, adding that there were “major deformations” in the hull. There had been fears that the vessel might disintegrate.
A ring of absorbent material circles the wreck. It is designed to mop up pollution that will inevitably spill out of the vessel, which is as long as three football pitches. Engineers say they are confident the toxic brew of detergents, sewage, and hydrocarbons will be contained.
Islanders, who rely on the tourist trade attracted by the area’s otherwise pristine waters, watched anxiously as the parbuckling process to right the ship got under way.
Professor Giandomenico Ardizzone, a marine safety expert from Rome’s La Sapienza University, said it would not be clear until tomorrow evening much polluting material had escaped.
Once the ship is upright, engineers will attach an equal number of water tanks on the port side to balance the ship, then anchor it during the winter months. The flat-keeled hull itself will be resting on a specially constructed platform some 30 metres underwater.
Next spring, the tanks will gradually be emptied of the water so the ship becomes buoyant enough to float off the seabed. It will then be towed to a mainland port to be scrapped. The parbuckling technique has been used before to raise and salvage capsized vessels. The USS Oklahoma was parbuckled by the US military in 1943 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.
But the 291-metre Concordia has been described as the largest cruise ship ever to capsize and therefore to require the complex rotation. The investigation into the disaster has been no less dramatic. Marine experts, including a senior lifeguard officer, have said that a dangerous, crowd-pleasing manoeuvre performed by the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, caused the fatal collision. And they concluded that delays in evacuating the liner, which had over 4,000 passengers and crew aboard, were responsible for most if not all of the fatalities.
Harrowing descriptions of how the 32 victims of the Costa Concordia disaster met their deaths after the giant vessel crashed into rocks in January last year were presented to an Italian judge, earlier this year. A dossier prepared by prosecutors described how terrified passengers, finding themselves with no space on life rafts, fell into the sea and drowned, while others slipped and became trapped inside the flooded vessel as it tilted at an alarming angle within an hour of the rocks tearing the hole in its side.
By the time the “abandon ship” order was given, lifeboats on one side of the ship were virtually unusable because of the tilt and panic spread as people rushed for the remaining ones. Hundreds were forced either to jump into the water in the darkness and swim ashore or lower themselves along the exposed hull of the ship to waiting boats.
Mr Schettino is standing trial on charges of abandoning ship before his passengers, causing a shipwreck, and causing multiple manslaughters. Four crew members, including the vessel’s second in command Ciro Ambrosio, have had plea bargains accepted, as has Roberto Ferrarini, the crisis co-ordinator of the vessel’s owners, Costa Cruises. A court report into the tragedy by Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone accused Costa Cruises executives of failing adequately to take charge of the situation after the collision.
In a Giglio church, special prayers were held on the eve of the salvage operation. “The sooner it happens, the better,” said the parish priest, Father Lorenzo Pasquotti, who opened his church to survivors on the night of the disaster.
“We embrace them. They’re now part of our community,” Mario Pellegrini, Giglio’s vice-mayor, said of the friends and families of the victims of the tragedy, and its survivors.
Italian newspaper columnists said the complex Italo-US engineering project to right the ship offered Italy a chance to “ rehabilitate” its image after the tragedy. “What is left of Italy’s reputation and credibility is playing out on this chunk of rock,” said Enrico Fierro, a columnist for Il Fatto Quotidiano daily.