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Updated: Mon, 16 Sep 2013 22:37:43 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Costa Concordia salvage operation behind schedule



Workmen on a boat sail near the Costa Concordia ship as it lies on its side near the Tuscan Island of Giglio, Italy, Sunday, sept. 15, 2013. An international team of engineers is expected on Monday, Sept. 16 a to try a never-before attempted strategy to right the luxury liner, which capsized after striking a reef in 2012 killing 32 people. (© AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Workmen on a boat sail near the Costa Concordia ship as it lies on its side near the Tuscan Island of Giglio, Italy, Sunday, sept. 15, 2013. An international team of engineers is expected on Monday, Sept. 16 a to try a never-before attempted strategy to right the luxury liner, which capsized after striking a reef in 2012 killing 32 people. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) Andrew Medichini/Associated Press

Engineers today succeeded in wresting the hull of the shipwrecked Costa Concordia from the Italian reef where it has been stuck since it capsized in January 2012, leaving them cautiously optimistic they can rotate the luxury liner upright and eventually tow it away.

But progress was much slower than predicted and the delicate operation to rotate the luxury liner from its capsized position to upright appeared likely to stretch into Tuesday, a senior official said.

Never before has such an enormous cruise ship been righted, and the crippled Concordia didn't budge for the first three hours after the operation began, engineer Sergio Girotto told reporters. But after some 5,443 tonnes of force were applied using a complex system of pulleys and counterweights, "we saw the detachment" from the reef thanks to undersea cameras, he said.

He said the cameras did not immediately reveal any sign of two bodies that were never recovered from the 32 who died in the disaster.

Images transmitted by robotic diving vehicles indicated that the submerged side of the hull had suffered "great deformation" from all its time on the granite seabed, battered by waves and compressed under the weight of the ship's 104,326 tonnes, Girotto said.

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The initial operation to lift the Concordia from the reef moved the ship just three degrees toward vertical, leaving the vessel some 62 degrees shy of being pulled upright. While a seemingly small shift, the movement was significant enough to be visible: A few metres of slime-covered hull that had been underwater became visible above the waterline.

The entire rotation was originally expected to last as long as 12 hours. But as evening approached, work was clearly falling behind schedule. Some seven hours after the rotation attempt began, the Concordia had moved upward only by a total of 10 degrees.

"It's taking longer than expected," Girotto said in a late afternoon briefing. "Even if it's 15 to 18 hours, we're OK with that. We are happy with the way things are going."

Officials stressed that so far no appreciable pollution from inside the ship had spewed out.

Pulling the ship from the reef is just the first step of a lengthy salvage process, and many things could go wrong, according to CBC’s Sasa Petricic who is monitoring the operation from Giglio Island.

Although there are no signs of mechanical failures yet, they could be a possibility, Petricic said.

“Everything is being run to its limit right now,” he said "It’s expected [the ship] will warp and distort as it’s being pulled up, that could mean it could ultimately fall apart."

A more serious risk is that the ship, once it gets close to vertical, could slip off the narrow ledge that it’s been sitting on.

In that case, the ship would tumble down into the depth of the Mediterranean Sea and cause a huge ecological problem for the area, Petricic said.

Engineers were waiting for the operation's completion before declaring success: The entire rotation was expected to last as long as 12 hours, with crews prepared to work into the night if need be.

So far, "rotation has gone according to predictions," and no appreciable pollution from inside the ship has spewed out, said Franco Gabrielli, chief of Italy's Civil Protection agency, which is overseeing the operation.

Giglio is part of a Tuscan archipelago in a marine sanctuary where dolphins romp and fish are plentiful.

The operation, known in nautical parlance as parbuckling, is a proven method to raise capsized vessels, but the 300-metre Concordia has been described as the largest cruise ship ever to capsize and subsequently require the complex rotation.

The Concordia crashed into a reef on a winter's night on Jan. 13, 2012. Thirty-two people were killed after the captain steered the luxury liner too close to the rocky coastline of Giglio, part of a chain of islands in pristine waters.

The operation involves engineers using remote controls to guide a synchronized leverage system of pulleys, counterweights and huge chains looped under the Concordia's carcass to delicately nudge the ship free from its rocky seabed and rotate it upright.

During the rotation process, a series of tanks fixed on the exposed side of the hull will be filled with water to help pull it down.

Once the ship is upright, engineers hope to attach an equal number of tanks filled with water on the other side to balance the ship, anchor it and stabilize it during the winter months. The flat-keeled hull itself will be resting on a false seabed some 30 metres underwater, made out of a platform and cement-filled sandbags that fill in the gaps of the sloping, jagged reef.

When it comes time to tow the ship in spring, the tanks will gradually be emptied of the water so the ship becomes buoyant enough to float off the seabed, working like a giant pair of water wings.

For over a year, residents of the fishing island have watched from shore as cranes and barges have moved into place to try to remove the hulk from their port. A few dozen gathered Monday morning on a breakwater to witness the operation getting underway, while others glimpsed it from shore as they went about their daily business.

"There is a little tension now. The operation is very complex," said Giovanni Andolfi, a 63-year-old resident who spent his career at sea working on tankers and cruise ships, and watched the operation from port.

Girotto said that "after a couple of hours, you should be able to see something visible from a distance."

The first couple of hours will be critical, engineers predicted. Pieces of the granite seabed are embedded in the submerged side of the hull, which divers haven't been able to fully inspect.

Despite the violent capsizing, no major pollution has been detected in the waters near the ship. Fuel was siphoned out early in the salvage operation, but food and human waste are still trapped inside. Should the Concordia break apart during the rotation, or spew out toxic materials as it is raised, absorbent barriers were set in place to catch any leaks.

Engineers though have dismissed as "remote" the possibility that the Concordia might break apart and no longer be sound enough to be towed to the mainland to be turned into scrap.

The reef sliced a 70-metre-long gash into what is now the exposed side off the hull, letting seawater rush in. The resulting tilt was so drastic that many lifeboats couldn't be launched. Dozens of the 4,200 passengers and crew were plucked to safety by helicopters or jumped into the sea and swam to shore. Bodies of many of the dead were retrieved inside the ship, although two bodies were never found and might lie beneath the hulk.

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The Concordia's captain is on trial on the mainland for alleged manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship during the chaotic and delayed evacuation. Capt. Francesco Schettino claims the reef wasn't on the nautical charts for the liner's week-long Mediterranean cruise.

Parbuckling was supposed to begin before dawn, but daylight broke even before the barge carrying the engineers close to the ship could leave shore. After the storm blew away, seas were calm.

Costa Crociere SpA, the Italian unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp., is picking up the tab for the parbuckling and its intricate preparation. The company puts the costs so far at $800 million US, though much of that will be passed onto its insurers.

Despite the disaster, locals have come to appreciate the crews who have spent more than a year working on the wreckage; they have mingled with locals and contributed to their economy, renting out hotel rooms and vacation apartments that would otherwise have gone vacant during the winter months.

Andolfi called the crews "the best brains in the field." But he was eager to see them finish.

"I would like Giglio to return to what it was before, a beautiful place of uncontaminated nature," he said.

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