Righting Concordia: Colossal Shipwreck Ready for Salvage

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Another delay was caused by what Porcellacchia calls "by far the most complicated matter." Last December it looked increasingly likely that the bow would rip off unless buoyed up by floatation boxes attached to the side of the ship to support the immense weight of the water-filled front of the Costa Concordia. The engineers therefore had to design another two floatation boxes, known as "blisters," which could be wrapped around the tip of the wreck like a neck brace. These too have since been fitted.

Enter the Salvage Master So will the ship hold together? Even the afterdeck? Not to mention the entire hull.

Porcellacchia falls back on his well-known magic formula: "According to our verification, all the important matters have been completed." In the meantime, a state-appointed panel of experts has checked and approved all the calculations. The plans have been reviewed by engineers and navigators, including an admiral who is also an engineer. Porcellacchia is at great pains to explain all this very carefully and in great detail, leaving no room for suspicion that anything will be left to chance.

The parbuckling procedure will be the trickiest phase of the entire operation. The man who will be in charge of this delicate maneuver is neither Italian nor an admiral. Captain Nicholas Sloane works for Titan as a "salvage master." Sloane is a sturdy 52-year-old South African. Although he was trained to sail ships, he has spent his entire working life clearing, blasting and towing ships away -- by sawing them to pieces if necessary. He doesn't look like the kind of person who ever worries whether he'll succeed. Indeed he says he has never failed to accomplish his mission.

Sloane is a quick-fix guy who usually spends just a few months in one place. Once, he recalls, he had to spend 14 months looking after a broken Caspian gas pipeline. Now he will have to live on Giglio for at least two years. But he doesn't mind. "Beautiful island, nice people, great food," he says. The salvage master is popular with the locals. The waiters call him "Nick."

According to the plan, Sloane will leave Giglio on the top deck of the wreck, where a container ship is to be attached to act as a "control unit." That's where Sloane will reside, as the captain of a floating garbage truck. For now the hotel serves as his bridge. But he isn't giving orders. Sloane sits on the terrace, affably explaining the situation. A PR manager from the shipping company flatters him in the most Italian manner possible, describing him as "our mythical Nick." Sloane mumbles something about "sexual harassment," and everyone laughs.

A Risky Endeavor

Despite the levity, the situation is grave. Sloane says the operation is the toughest job he has ever taken on. But parbuckling is not a new procedure, and Sloane knows of four cases in which it was employed -- all of them successful. In the summer of 2007, for example, an Italian freighter was righted without incident in the port of Antwerp. However that ship was about 80 meters shorter than the Costa Concordia, and wasn't perched on a steep slope in open water, but rather lying on flat ground right by the quayside.

And there's another difference: Sloane says the Costa Concordia is "the most wounded ship ever prepared for parbuckling."

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