Members of the Italian Carabinieri Police Divers unit dive near the bell… (Ufficio Stampa Gruppo Carabinieri,…)
It's a disturbing sight: a massive, half-submerged cruise ship, dashed against rocks on an island off the Tuscan coast of Italy.
But as the gruesome job of searching for missing victims of the Costa Concordia tragedy winds down in the coming days, a daunting task awaits salvage workers poised to deal with the wrecked hulk itself. It's a task that may take months before the scene changes much.
Workers have begun placing booms around the ship to prevent oil spills as crews wait for the OK to start removing 2,400 tons of fuel and oil from the double-hulled vessel, which ran aground last week on the island of Giglio. The removal is estimated to take three to four weeks. Engineers, meanwhile, will gauge the structural damage to the $450-million ship. Next comes the decision on whether to repair and re-float it or cut it into pieces for parts and materials.
The work will be done by salvage companies that will inspect and assess the damage and make recommendations on how to proceed. But the job will be unusual for them: Such companies typically rescue container ships or oil tankers that run aground. Here, they must deal with a 951-foot-long, 17-deck cruise ship with 1,500 cabins.
"This one is quite difficult because you have all these compartments in the ship, which is top-heavy to begin with," said Frances Leckey, operations director for Resolve Marine Group, a Florida company that salvages wrecked ships. "This is not common at all."
Operators of the cruise ship said no decision will be made on whether the Costa Concordia can be repaired until all the missing passengers and crew members are recovered and workers remove the ship's fuel and oil to prevent a leak.
Authorities in Italy have accused the ship's captain of making a reckless maneuver that brought the cruise liner so close to shore that rocks tore holes in the side of the hull.
Of the 4,200 people aboard the ship, at least 11 were killed and 21 were still missing. Search efforts by divers continued Thursday.
"Costa's main focus remains on the search and rescue operation and on getting guests and crew home safely," said a spokesman for Costa Cruises, which operated the ship, carrying 4,200 people.
The spokesman said the cruise line company has not yet determined the cost of the rescue or future repair work. Costa Cruises' parent company, Miami-basedCarnival Corp., has said it expects to lose nearly $100 million from the loss of the use of the ship for at least 10 months. Carnival announced Thursday that in response to the accident it will review all of its safety and emergency response procedures among the 10 subsidiary cruise companies it operates.
The vessel is resting on its starboard side atop protruding rocks, in a position that salvage experts say makes inspecting and repairing the vessel complicated because any movement could drop the ship into deeper water.
"If you get it loose from the rock, there is a risk of slipping down further," said Martijn Schuttevaer, a spokesman for Royal Boskalis Westminster, the parent of Smit Salvage, the Dutch company hired to pump fuel from the Costa Concordia. Costa Cruises has yet to hire a firm to assess the damage to the ship, he said.
Pumping the fuel from the vessel could take three to four weeks and require workers to drill fist-size holes in the hull, Schuttevaer said. Smit workers must heat the fuel so it flows out faster, he said.
While the fuel is being removed, salvage specialists say, divers will probably inspect the vessel to determine the extent of the damage and produce detailed surveys of the rocks and ocean floor around the ship.
"It could take many weeks of preparation and many weeks to execute the salvage plan," said Tim Beaver, president of the American Salvage Assn. trade group.
If Costa Cruises decides to repair the ship, the first steps would be to seal the gashes in the hull and pump the water out of the vessel, salvage experts said. As water is pumped out, they said, crews probably would use cables to help pull the vessel vertical.
But pulling the ship upright could cause more damage to the hull because it rests on coastal rocks, Beaver said. Further complicating the job, he said, is that it may be impossible to position cranes on the rocks on the starboard side to lift the vessel.
"On its most basic level, it is a simple physics problem," said Beaver, who has been working in the marine salvage business for 35 years. "But it's complicated by the details."
Experts say cutting up the vessel and hauling away the pieces on barges would be a simpler task but would take much longer.
"In this case," said Schuttevaer of Smit Salvage, "so much of the ship is above water that you could remove everything above water by hand, bit by bit."