The plan is to stage a maneuver of unprecedented complexity, a first in maritime history. The Costa Concordia is to be removed in one piece without leaving any trace behind. To achieve this, the engineers must right the ship and strap 10-story-high air-filled metal containers to her slashed hull. These will provide buoyancy during the wreck's final journey, when it is towed to an industrial port for dismantling.
Where exactly this will be is not yet clear, but that's a less pressing concern. At the moment all attention is focused on whether they can indeed flip the crippled liner upright from her current position, a procedure known as "parbuckling." The maneuver may begin as soon as next Monday, Civil Protection Commissioner Franco Gabrielli told reporters on Wednesday. It will undoubtedly be a painfully slow process -- possibly lasting up to 10 hours -- during which experts, onlookers, government representatives, hobby videographers and professional camera teams will be hard-pressed to look away from the spectacle unfolding before their very eyes: For the first time in more than 18 months, the Costa Concordia will be moving again.
Nine hydraulic pumps with a combined strength that can lift 14,200 metric tons will attempt to rotate the hull. Each will be connected to the port side of the ship by four arm-thick steel cables. Cables on the starboard side will exert 11,000 tons of tractive force in the other direction. According to his calculations, Porcellacchia, the wreck would probably start moving with about 7,000 tons of tractive power.
Everyone hopes the ship will remain in one piece. Phenomenal forces will be exerted on the immensely heavy, water-filled hull, and nobody knows for sure how bad the damage is on the starboard side, on which the wreck has been lying for a year-and-a-half. To do so, Porcellacchia explains, he would have to send divers into the bowels of the ship. But that's too dangerous.
The engineers have based their calculations on the assumption that the superstructure is badly damaged. Even so, they believe the ship will hold together. Porcellacchia keeps repeating one phrase over and over almost devoutly, like a liturgical refrain, his own personal "Lord, have mercy": "Our verifications comfort us."
A String of Mishaps
But how sure can the engineers really be, given that they already badly underestimated the duration of the operation? Were the ship's hull to tear apart during parbuckling, it would be immensely embarrassing and shatter the dreams of an environmentally friendly withdrawal from this place of shame.
Technical responsibility for the tricky maneuver rests with two companies with very different backgrounds. Titan Salvage from Florida specializes in recovering sunken ships, while the Italian firm Micoperi from Ravenna supplies experts for underwater construction, for instance on oil platforms.
Over the last 12 months Micoperi has been building an underwater steel platform one-and-a-half times the size of a soccer field. The coast off Giglio falls away steeply, and without this platform the wreck could slip deeper into the water during the attempt to right her.
The construction of the platform was partly to blame for the overall delay. Holes had to be bored nine meters into the seabed to anchor the foundation. But the rugged rock is full of cavities. As a result, many of the attempts to drill the holes had to be abandoned because they offered no firm hold. Nevertheless the platform is now in place.