Righting Concordia: Colossal Shipwreck Ready for Salvage

PHOTO: Costa Concordia SalvagedPlayAlessandro Bianchi/Reuters
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The most spectacular salvage operation in shipping history is set to begin next week. Though all the pieces are now in place, the question remains whether the doomed Costa Concordia can be righted, or whether she will break apart in the process.

Franco Porcellacchia says the Costa Concordia was a challenge to build. The chief construction engineer still enthuses about the cruise liner's opulent features, including the "macro dome," a 50-meter (165-foot) sliding roof over the upper deck. "The ship was considered extremely innovative at the time," he says.

But the Costa Concordia didn't sail for long. On the night of January 13, 2012, barely six-and-a-half years after she was launched, Captain Francesco Schettino drove her into a rock off the Italian island of Giglio, then abandoned the sinking ship, cementing his legacy as the worst captain in cruise-line history.

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Schettino is currently in custody in Naples awaiting the resumption of his case. Meanwhile the ship is still lying on its side on the seabed off Giglio, jutting high out of the water, waiting to be removed.

Today, the Costa Concordia is a challenging wreck, Porcellacchia confirms. The 60-year-old engineer is in charge of the ship for the second time. He's been tasked with coordinating the shipping company's side of the recovery. Disposing of the liner will be more expensive than building her. The original construction cost €450 million ($570 million). Righting, towing and scrapping her will undoubtedly cost far more.

If she can be set upright again, that is.

A Monument of Shame

Franco Porcellacchia is a slim, well-groomed gentleman. He explains the situation while sitting calmly on the terrace of the harbor-side hotel on Giglio that has served as the operational headquarters of the various salvage firms for more than a year.

The situation is resoundingly embarrassing, but not because of the cost. After all, the tab will be picked up by a consortium of English insurance companies. It's down to utter shame: 32 people are dead because an Italian captain just wanted to show off a little. Schettino's bungling has besmirched an entire industry. Today the wreck juts out of the water off the picturesque vacation island like a memorial to a leisure industry gone out of control. So it has to go -- the quicker the better.

Unfortunately, things aren't moving as quickly as some had hoped. Porcellacchio bristles when someone uses the word "delay." Still, the official word last summer was that everything would be finished by this summer. Now summer is drawing to a close, yet the wreck still hasn't even been righted. Publishing the timetables in the first place was a mistake, Porcellacchia admits.

A dark blue, four-story stack of portacabins on stilts stands between the coast and the Costa Concordia. These are the living quarters of more than 500 salvage workers, divers and technicians from 20 countries, the largest collection of experts ever assembled around a capsized ship. At night the site is brightly lit up like a town on the water. Porcellacchia insists everything is going according to plan -- just not to the initial timetable.

The Best Laid Plan

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.

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."

It isn't so unusual that Sloane refers to the ship as a "she." But it sounds like bitter tenderness when he says, for example, that she absolutely has to be righted before winter sets in, because she's suffering, lying there like that, sinking further and further down the slope.

Since she ran aground, the ship has moved about three meters, partly due to slippage, partly from sinking deeper into the rock. The vessel's starboard wall is becoming more and more deformed, developing a negative imprint of the reef, thereby weakening the superstructure further.

'We Only Have One Shot'

Laser measurement devices from Florence University are monitoring the ship around the clock, recording her every movement. Although she can no longer slip away because of the chains anchored to her hull, Sloane says the ship is already extremely weak. He speaks less and less about verification and statistical calculations. He simply says, "We only have one shot." In other words, the parbuckling maneuver has to work the first time. "She wouldn't support these forces twice," he explains.

"When she's upright, she will be fine," Sloane says in all seriousness, as if she will feel better. After all, the greatest technical hurdle of the entire maneuver will have been overcome.

The next steps are supposedly easier to calculate. Flotation tanks would be fixed to the starboard side. These would not be welded to the ship, but would rather lift her up via chains slung underneath the hull.

Sloane mentions a new timetable, one he is sure is definite: By next March, at the very latest, all the floatation tanks should be in place. All the water will have been pumped out of the containers by the end of May, slowly lifting a grotesque combination of wreck and steel lifejacket like a floating dock. The Costa Concordia will then be 18 meters off the seabed, more than double her original draught, enabling her to be safely towed away from Giglio for good at a pedestrian pace of no more than 2 knots. "If she survives the parbuckling, she'll be gone next summer," Sloane predicts.

And if not? If she breaks apart? Is there a plan B?

Sloane glances meditatively across the hotel terrace toward the offshore construction site. Eventually he says, "No, no, she … She'll survive."

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt