Huge Operation To Refloat Costa Concordia

Nick Pisa, in Italy

The stricken cruise liner Costa Concordia is to be righted and refloated in what will be the biggest operation of its kind ever seen.

Teams of engineers will work around the clock seven days a week for a year in an operation which is expected to start in May, four months after the liner struck rocks and capsized leaving 32 people dead, with two bodies still unaccounted for.

The ship is currently lying at an angle of 80 degrees on rocks known as Seagull Point, where it ran aground, just outside the entrance to Giglio harbour on January 13.

The £372m ship had left the Italian harbour of Civitavecchia two hours before to begin a week-long Mediterranean cruise.

More than 4,000 passengers and crew were on board when the captain, Francesco Schettino, allegedly changed course in order to carry out a "sail-by salute" to impress passengers and crew.

The manoeuvre tore a 50m gash in the hull of the 290m-long ship, with water pouring into the engine room, flooding the compartments and knocking out electrical power.

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Prosecutors have launched an investigation into Schettino's actions and he is currently under house arrest while charges of causing a shipwreck, multiple manslaughter, abandoning ship and failing to inform maritime authorities of the situation are considered.

He is said to have delayed the order to abandon ship for more than an hour meaning that by the time the lifeboats were launched it was already too late to use them safely because of the angle of the Concordia.

Many passengers and crew had to make their way down the hull on rope ladders.

In an interview with Italian weekly Oggi, Suzy Albertini, the mother of Dyana, five, the youngest victim of the tragedy, said she didn't "hate Schettino" and felt no anger towards him.

Dyana was found with her father William Arlotti, who was separated from Ms Albertini and who had taken his daughter on the ill-fated cruise with his new partner, who survived the disaster.

She added: "I think all the deaths that Schettino has on his conscience are already a hard punishment for him. I think he is living a nightmare as well. I know if I was in his clothes I would be in a terrible state but, as I say, I don't feel any anger.

"He is a father as well and when he said he was upset by Dyana's death I don't think he was making it up, I'm convinced he would know how it would feel if something happened to his child."

Last month a judge gave experts three months to examine the black box data recorder from the Concordia and they are due to report their findings in July.

Locals want the ship removed as quickly as possible and without any lasting impact on the environment which is home to whales, porpoises and dolphins and the island's beaches are a popular attraction for thousands of tourists every summer.

Last month, 2,380 tonnes of heavy duty diesel were pumped out of the fuel tanks in a round-the-clock operation that lasted five weeks and had no significant environmental impact.

The method used to refloat the 114,000 tonne Costa will involve sealing up the holes in the structure of the hull, as well as the huge gash and sealing off sections into airtight compartments.

From there huge pontoons and cranes will be brought in, while pipelines are fixed to the Costa and air will be pumped into the compartments to give it buoyancy before it is straightened and then towed away to a dock, most likely its home port of Genoa where it was launched in 2006.

This option is expected to cost around $300m (£187m) - about half of what the ship is worth - and the insurers will then have to decide whether to scrap the vessel or refit it and put it back into service, although the most likely option is for it to be sold on.

The other possibility was for the Concordia to be cut into sections of 100 to 500 tonnes and carried away on huge barges but this plan was opposed by locals and the Italian authorities as it carried the most risk of environmental pollution.

John Noble of the International Salvage Union, said: "This will be one of the biggest ever removal jobs in maritime history. Removing a ship of this size and weight intact will be very expensive and it also could be very dangerous.

"The companies involved will have had to carry out underwater surveys to check out the ship and the area around where it is resting - in essence the holes will all be sealed up and water pumped out and air pumped in to the compartments to get her buoyant again."

Cristiano Pellegrini, spokesman for Giglio council, said: "The removal intact of the ship was always the solution that we and the regional authorities wanted because it ensured the least impact on the environment.

"It also respects the memory of those who died - to have the ship cut up into pieces with two people still missing would have not seemed correct. We do still have plans for a permanent memorial and among those being considered but it is still premature."