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Raising the Costa Concordia, the biggest sea salvage operation ever (+video)

As its captain waits to hear whether he will face charges after capsizing, the Costa Concordia still lies off Giglio Island. Now, hundreds of workers are preparing to float the wreckage.

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When it is upright, another 15 sponsons will then be welded to the starboard, landward side of the ship, balancing the port sponsons.

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Finally, the seawater will be pumped out of the compartments, giving the ship buoyancy and enabling it to float free of the underwater platform. (Canadian Business magazine offers a graphic explaining the procedure.)

In addition to the platforms, the bowl-shaped space underneath the ship will be filled in with sacks holding nearly 18,000 tons of cement, which will be removed once the Concordia is towed away.

It will be taken to an as yet unspecified Italian port, where it is likely to be broken up for scrap metal.

“The concept is simple, but there are a few challenges along the way,” said Sloane, with some understatement.

“The forces involved in lifting the ship upright are huge. Internal structural components could fail. If she starts twisting, we have to correct that immediately. If we have a mild winter, that will be great. But it’s unlikely.”

The removal operation is being conducted jointly by American salvage firm Titan and Italian offshore rig company Micoperi, which were commissioned to do the job by Costa Cruises, the Italian owners of the Concordia.

Titan has extensive experience with salvaging stricken container ships around the world, including the recovery of a beached container ship loaded with 5,000 vehicles in the North Pacific and an oil rig that was adrift off Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic, one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world.

“For an operation of this size, there is always a worry that something could go wrong,” said Franco Porcellacchia, vice president of Carnival Corporation, the US company that owns Costa Cruises. “But we have some of the best technicians in the world working on this, so we are confident it will work.”

Environmental recovery

The removal of heavy oil and diesel from the ship’s fuel tanks earlier this year assuaged fears of an environmental disaster.

Still, experts are going to unusual lengths to protect marine animals and plant life around the ship, includes sponges and coral.

The huge shadow cast by the Concordia has killed a large swath of sea grass beneath it, endangering about 200 giant clams, a species commonly known as the “noble pen shell,” which can reach 3 feet in length.

Marine biologists in diving gear have painstakingly transplanted the molluscs to a bay along the coast where the sea grass is still thriving.

Giglio is part of the Tuscan archipelago of islands, a marine conservation area with a large population of whales and dolphins, and the experts have devised an ingenious technique to protect the animals from the noise of the heavy drilling going on around the ship.

When drilling starts, two underwater tubes pump compressed air into the water, creating a “a wall of bubbles.”

“It absorbs much of the noise and reduces the effect on cetaceans,” said Giandomenico Ardizzone, a professor of marine ecology at La Sapienza University in Rome. “We are trying to limit the environmental impact of this disaster as much as we possibly can.”


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