Salvage operators in Italy worked through the night to lift the Costa Concordia cruise ship from its watery grave in the biggest ever project of its kind.
Officials said they expected the 114,500-ton vessel, which has lain on its side since the deadly crash on January 13, 2012, to be upright by 0200 GMT on Tuesday.
The 290-metre (951-foot) long ship -- longer than the Titanic and more than twice as heavy -- could be seen emerging from the water like a ghost ship.
The side of the ship that had been underwater was rusty and brown after 20 months in the sea, contrasting with the white of the exposed side.
Local residents and survivors spoke of an eerie feeling as the ship slowly rose upright, saying the sight reminded them of the tragedy that claimed 32 lives.
"Seeing it re-emerge is emotional for me," said Luciano Castro, a survivor who travelled to the picturesque island of Giglio to witness the salvage.
"I could not miss it. That ship could have been my end and instead I am here to tell the story," he said.
Mario Pellegrini, the local deputy mayor who freed trapped passengers during the disaster, said: "I am moved. It is starting to look like it did that night."
Salvage coordinators said at a press conference early on Tuesday that the ship had so far been hoisted up by 25 degrees, with about 30 more degrees to go.
"We have entered the final phase of the rotation," said Franco Gabrielli, head of the civil protection agency which is overseeing the US-Italian project.
The salvage is the biggest ever for a passenger ship.
It was being carried out with 36 giant cables across the hull and tanks the size of 11-storey buildings welded on the side of the ship which were being gradually filled with water to act as ballast.
The project has cost 600 million euros ($800 million) and insurers, who are picking up the bill, estimate it could run to $1.1 billion once it is completed.
Salvage coordinators have played down fears among environmentalists of toxic waste pouring into the sea, saying there have been no spillages so far.
The man giving the orders from a control room on a barge is Nick Sloane, a South African with years of experience on some of the world's biggest shipwrecks.
Giglio islanders said they were relieved that the time when the ship will be removed was drawing closer.
"All the inhabitants are hoping and waiting," said Giovanna Rum, owner of a shop for maritime clothing.
They will have months more to wait, however, as the Costa Concordia will not be towed away for scrapping until spring of next year at the earliest.
The 14-deck Costa Concordia was once a floating pleasure palace with a casino, four swimming pools and the largest spa centre ever built on a ship.
It keeled over in shallow waters within sight of Giglio's port but the order to abandon the vessel came more than an hour later -- a fatal delay.
Hundreds were forced to either jump into the water in the darkness and swim ashore or lower themselves along the exposed hull of the ship to waiting boats.
Two bodies -- that of an Indian waiter and an Italian passenger -- were never recovered from the wreck and are believed to be still stuck under the ship.
Kevin Rebello, the waiter's brother, and Elio Vincenzi, the passenger's husband, were expected to arrive on Giglio later on Tuesday as prosecutors were expected to launch a new search for the bodies.
"I am still hoping to find my wife. This is a tense wait for me and for my daughter," Vincenzi said.