Costa Concordia: World's Biggest Ship Salvage

Costa Concordia: World's Biggest Ship Salvage

Air bubbles released from a pipe on the seabed will be used to form a buffer curtain to protect the marine park from noise pollution during the salvage.

A giant yellow drill shatters into the rocky seabed next to the rusting Costa Concordia wreck as workers battle to pull off the biggest salvage operation of its kind in history.

Cranes tower over the luxury liner, which lies covered in seaweed where it capsized on Giglio island in January. A gaping hole where the swimming pool used to be reveals the ghostly depths of the ship's nine-story central atrium.

The disaster, which killed 32 people, left salvage teams facing the unprecedented challenge of removing a ship with a gross tonnage of 114,500 GT without spilling its rotting contents into the sea.

"It's the biggest ship recovery ever by quite some way," said Nick Sloane, salvage master for US company Titan, which won a bid for the project jointly with Italian offshore rig company Micoperi to right and float the Concordia. "The plan is based on a lot of assumptions made by our engineering teams. It's a thumbsuck, but an informed thumbsuck," the South African said with a grin, adding that he has a cigar ready to celebrate the day the ship floats.

One of the biggest risks is that the ship, which is grounded on two large outcrops close to the shore, will slip when righted and plunge into the depths. The plan is for 26 pillars to be driven into the seabed to support a series of underwater platforms as big as football fields for the ship to sit on.

Large metal tanks that can be filled with water will then be welded onto the sides of the ship to balance the giant wreckage while it is dragged into an upright position using two cranes as well as cables attached to the platforms. The largest of the tanks are as high as an 11-storey building and weigh 500-plus tons, and getting them lined up precisely on the frame is far from easy.

"There's never been anything like this. It's part salvage, part offshore operation," said Franco Porcellacchia from the ship's parent company Carnival.

Teams working late into the night this week at the operation's nerve center in a hotel on Giglio coordinated the arrival of 66 divers tasked with putting 17,500 tons of cement bags in a 50-metre gap between the ship and the seabed.

The fear is that the midship section may give way, breaking the ship in half -- a risk greatly increased should there be bad weather over the coming winter.

"She's spanned between the reefs so the more support you give her the better she'll survive the winter. If we have a mild winter that will be great, but it's unlikely, and bad weather will mean delays for sure," Sloane said.

The project, which Carnival says will cost at least 400 million euros ($525 million), is already running several months late due to technical issues.

"The seabed is granite rock, not limestone or sandstone," Sloane said. "Granite rock is the worst kind to be drilling in, especially at the 35 to 40 degree angles that we're drilling. The drill head also slips on the rock." The team finally managed to get the first hole drilled this week.

Local builder Luca said he didn't mind how long it takes: "I'd rather they take their time over it than rush it, break the ship and pollute the shoreline" where even in mid-October locals and tourists swim in the crystal-clear waters.

Life in the marine park is being monitored by Giandomenico Ardizzone, professor in environmental biology at Rome's Sapienza University, whose 15-man team have been painstakingly saving rare giant mussels from under the wreck.

He also has watchers go out in a boat twice a day to see whether there are any whales or dolphins near the Concordia: "If there were, the drilling would stop because it could damage their hearing even over a long distance."

And to limit the intense vibrations and din when the wreck is righted, the professor is drawing up plans for a bubble wall created by air bubbles released from a pipe on the seabed to form a buffer curtain.

"It's the first time a system this complicated will have been used for salvage," he said. "The plan is not only to reduce noise but also create a barrier to trap pollution if the stagnant water inside the ship should spill."

The capsized Costa Concordia cruise ship lies off the port of Giglio Island, Italy.

Jan. 26, 2012

-- As the Titanic-like image of the stricken Costa Concordia cruise ship continues to haunt the landscape off the Tuscany island of Giglio, unanswered questions remain about what really happened on the dark night of January 13. Here is an account of the disaster, based on leaked police transcripts, secret recordings and eyewitness reports.

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Sailing for a Mediterranean cruise, the Concordia left the port of Civitavecchia, near Rome, on Friday, Jan. 13 at 7:00 p.m. There were 4,229 people aboard, including a crew of more than 1,000 and over 3,000 tourists from 60 countries -- mostly Italians, French, Germans and Spaniards.

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Shining with lights, the ship's five restaurants and 13 bars welcomed families, honeymooners and couples. At about 9 p.m., passengers saw Francesco Schettino, the Concordia's captain, in the exclusive Club Concordia restaurant. He was having dinner in the company of Antonello Tievoli, the restaurant's head waiter, and a woman, believed to be Domnica Cemortan, a 25-year-old Moldovan who had previously worked on the Concordia.

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According to third officer Silvia Coronika, Captain Schettino arrived on the bridge at about 9:30 p.m., when the ship was about four nautical miles from the Giglio island. He switched to manual navigation in order to perform a close-up "salute" to a retired captain, Mario Palombo. Coronika recalled that the restaurant's head waiter Tievoli, a native of the island, was on the bridge, as well as purser Manrico Giampetroni. Giampetroni was found trapped on the stricken vessel with a broken leg 36 hours after the disaster. "There were people asking what island it was, the purser was chatting away, in short they were disturbing the navigation of the ship, with a consequent impact on concentration," Coronika told investigators. At about 9.40 p.m., Schettino phoned Palombo to let him know he would sound the siren for him. Palombo just had time to tell Schettino he wasn't on the island when the disaster occurred.

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Schettino was still on the phone with Palombo when the 114,500-ton, 17-deck ship, traveling at about 15 knots, hit a rocky outcrop called Le Scole. Like a can opener, the rock gouged a 230-foot gash into the port-side hull. A chunk of granite remains embedded in the ship's hull. "I was navigating by sight because I knew the depths well and I had done this maneuver three or four times," Schettino told the prosecutor. "But this time I ordered the turn too late and I ended up in water that was too shallow. I don't know why it happened...I was convinced that passing within 0.28 of a mile there wouldn't be any problem." The electricity went off, and passengers, who heard a loud bang, began to panic.

At 9:57 p.m., as water began flooding into the engine rooms, Captain Schettino made the first of his many calls to Costa operations manager Roberto Ferrarini. "I've gotten myself into a mess, there was contact with the seabed. I am telling you the truth, we passed by Giglio and there was an impact," Schettino told Ferrarini, according to court documents. According to Ferrarini, Schettino asked him to make up a distorted version of the accident, by saying that the rock collision occurred because of a blackout. Ferrarini refused. Schettino told Valeria Montesarchio, the magistrate in charge of preliminary inquiries, that after the rock collision he made an emergency maneuver to bring the ship alongside the coast, thus preventing the vessel from heading out to sea and sinking. "The hole was immense. There was a spike of rock. But everything that happened from that moment on, I performed to the utmost extent of my professionalism and this can help me alleviate or at least give me the illusion to be at peace with my conscience," Schettino told a friend in a wiretapped conversation.

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After the collision, loudspeakers announced in many languages that there was nothing to worry about, that it was just a blackout. But the ship began listing, dinnerware was crashing off tables -- it was hard to believe that all that was caused by a problem to one generator. A passenger called relatives on shore who notified police, while panicked people, wearing life vests, rushed to the fourth deck where the lifeboats were located. At 10:12 p.m., there was a radio exchange between a Livorno Port official and an unidentified Costa Concordia officer, who reported "a blackout on board": "What type of problem, only generators? Because a relative of a passenger said that during the dinner everything fell on her head," asked a worried Livorno Port official. "I repeat, we are verifying the conditions of the blackout," replied the Concordia officer. Meanwhile, water began flooding various areas of the ship. The cruise was turning into a nightmare.

At 10:58 p.m., with a huge delay of 70 minutes, the "abandon ship" signal -- seven short whistles and one long -- was finally sounded. Passengers began to board lifeboats amid chaos and panic. Many jumped into the chilly waters. Captain Schettino boarded the first lifeboat he could get into. "When I realized that the ship was listing, I left and got off it," he told a friend in a wiretapped phone conversation. He later told the investigators that left the liner because he "slipped on a lifeboat." Around midnight, rescue helicopters saw many people on board still trying to escape the listing ship.

"It was a dark and apocalyptic scene, only lighted by the scanning spotlights of the helicopters. I saw many passengers facing immense difficulties and witnessed some of them jumping into the sea," Roberto Vongher, a chief engineer on a boat which organizes daily trips of the Tuscan Archipelago, told Discovery News. Vongher was among the first rescuers. According to the log compiled by the Harbor Master at the port of Livorno, at 12:34 a.m., Schettino told the coastguard he was in a lifeboat and could see three people in the water. At 1:46 a.m., Livorno Port Authority Chief Gregorio De Falco called Schettino and ordered him to go back on board using the rope ladder. "It's dark..." cried Schettino. "And so what? You want go home, Schettino? It is dark and you want to go home? Get back on board! Now!" ordered De Falco. Schettino would never return to the Concordia. Once on dry land, he took a taxi to the Hotel Bahamas and asked the owner if could he borrow some socks since he had wet feet. Meanwhile, hundreds of passengers clambered along a rope ladder, strapped to the side of the ship, to make their way to a life raft. At 4:46 a.m. the evacuation of more than 4,200 passengers and crew was complete.

The disaster is not yet over. The Concordia, holding some 2,300 tons of fuel oil, is an environmental time bomb that threatens a marine sanctuary home to more than 700 plant and animal species. Although it would take a miracle to find any of the 16 missing people alive, rescue divers of the Marina Militare (Italian Navy) continue to explore the submerged areas of the wreck. More than 150 cabins have yet to be opened. The divers often swim in eerie settings, such as the frescoed halls, which were once the ship's pride, and floating furniture, champagne bottles, lamps and carpets. They have to rely on a rope attached at one end to their wetsuits and at the other to dinghies on the surface. Only in this way can they find their way out of the murky wreck.

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Lying like a beached whale, the Costa Concordia remains the focus of many unanswered questions. Most likely, we will not know what really happened until the voyage data recorder (VDR), or black box, is analyzed. But Beniamino Deidda, the chief prosecutor of Tuscany who is overseeing the inquiry into the Costa Concordia disaster, urged investigators to look beyond the behavior of Captain Schettino, who is currently under house arrest with charges of manslaughter, shipwreck and abandoning ship. "For the moment, attention is generally concentrated on the responsibility of the captain, who showed himself to be tragically inadequate. But who chooses the captain?" Deidda said. Mentioning "lifeboats that did not come down, crew who did not know what to do and scant preparation in crisis management," Deidda remarked that the ship's owner "is the guarantor and is responsible." Talking to a parliament committee, the head of Italy's Coast Guard corps, Admiral Marco Brusco, said that Capt. Schettino lost a precious hour after the collision. Without that waste of time, "it would have been possible to lower the lifeboats with calm, put the people at ease," and possibly save all passengers, Brusco said. The sinking of Carnival's Costa Concordia could be the biggest loss in maritime history, reaching $1 billion once environmental damage and liability claims are filed on behalf of those who were injured and killed in the crash.

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