Righting Concordia: Colossal Shipwreck Ready for Salvage

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Photo Gallery: Salvaging the Costa Concordia Photos
DPA

The most spectacular salvage operation in shipping history is set to begin next week. Though all the pieces are now in place, the question remains whether the doomed Costa Concordia can be righted, or whether she will break apart in the process.

Franco Porcellacchia says the Costa Concordia was a challenge to build. The chief construction engineer still enthuses about the cruise liner's opulent features, including the "macro dome," a 50-meter (165-foot) sliding roof over the upper deck. "The ship was considered extremely innovative at the time," he says.

But the Costa Concordia didn't sail for long. On the night of January 13, 2012, barely six-and-a-half years after she was launched, Captain Francesco Schettino drove her into a rock off the Italian island of Giglio, then abandoned the sinking ship, cementing his legacy as the worst captain in cruise-line history.

Schettino is currently in custody in Naples awaiting the resumption of his case. Meanwhile the ship is still lying on its side on the seabed off Giglio, jutting high out of the water, waiting to be removed.

Today, the Costa Concordia is a challenging wreck, Porcellacchia confirms. The 60-year-old engineer is in charge of the ship for the second time. He's been tasked with coordinating the shipping company's side of the recovery. Disposing of the liner will be more expensive than building her. The original construction cost €450 million ($570 million). Righting, towing and scrapping her will undoubtedly cost far more.

If she can be set upright again, that is.

A Monument of Shame

Franco Porcellacchia is a slim, well-groomed gentleman. He explains the situation while sitting calmly on the terrace of the harbor-side hotel on Giglio that has served as the operational headquarters of the various salvage firms for more than a year.

The situation is resoundingly embarrassing, but not because of the cost. After all, the tab will be picked up by a consortium of English insurance companies. It's down to utter shame: 32 people are dead because an Italian captain just wanted to show off a little. Schettino's bungling has besmirched an entire industry. Today the wreck juts out of the water off the picturesque vacation island like a memorial to a leisure industry gone out of control. So it has to go -- the quicker the better.

Unfortunately, things aren't moving as quickly as some had hoped. Porcellacchio bristles when someone uses the word "delay." Still, the official word last summer was that everything would be finished by this summer. Now summer is drawing to a close, yet the wreck still hasn't even been righted. Publishing the timetables in the first place was a mistake, Porcellacchia admits.

A dark blue, four-story stack of portacabins on stilts stands between the coast and the Costa Concordia. These are the living quarters of more than 500 salvage workers, divers and technicians from 20 countries, the largest collection of experts ever assembled around a capsized ship. At night the site is brightly lit up like a town on the water. Porcellacchia insists everything is going according to plan -- just not to the initial timetable.

The Best Laid Plan

The plan is to stage a maneuver of unprecedented complexity, a first in maritime history. The Costa Concordia is to be removed in one piece without leaving any trace behind. To achieve this, the engineers must right the ship and strap 10-story-high air-filled metal containers to her slashed hull. These will provide buoyancy during the wreck's final journey, when it is towed to an industrial port for dismantling.

Where exactly this will be is not yet clear, but that's a less pressing concern. At the moment all attention is focused on whether they can indeed flip the crippled liner upright from her current position, a procedure known as "parbuckling." The maneuver may begin as soon as next Monday, Civil Protection Commissioner Franco Gabrielli told reporters on Wednesday. It will undoubtedly be a painfully slow process -- possibly lasting up to 10 hours -- during which experts, onlookers, government representatives, hobby videographers and professional camera teams will be hard-pressed to look away from the spectacle unfolding before their very eyes: For the first time in more than 18 months, the Costa Concordia will be moving again.

Nine hydraulic pumps with a combined strength that can lift 14,200 metric tons will attempt to rotate the hull. Each will be connected to the port side of the ship by four arm-thick steel cables. Cables on the starboard side will exert 11,000 tons of tractive force in the other direction. According to his calculations, Porcellacchia, the wreck would probably start moving with about 7,000 tons of tractive power.

Everyone hopes the ship will remain in one piece. Phenomenal forces will be exerted on the immensely heavy, water-filled hull, and nobody knows for sure how bad the damage is on the starboard side, on which the wreck has been lying for a year-and-a-half. To do so, Porcellacchia explains, he would have to send divers into the bowels of the ship. But that's too dangerous.

The engineers have based their calculations on the assumption that the superstructure is badly damaged. Even so, they believe the ship will hold together. Porcellacchia keeps repeating one phrase over and over almost devoutly, like a liturgical refrain, his own personal "Lord, have mercy": "Our verifications comfort us."

A String of Mishaps

But how sure can the engineers really be, given that they already badly underestimated the duration of the operation? Were the ship's hull to tear apart during parbuckling, it would be immensely embarrassing and shatter the dreams of an environmentally friendly withdrawal from this place of shame.

Technical responsibility for the tricky maneuver rests with two companies with very different backgrounds. Titan Salvage from Florida specializes in recovering sunken ships, while the Italian firm Micoperi from Ravenna supplies experts for underwater construction, for instance on oil platforms.

Over the last 12 months Micoperi has been building an underwater steel platform one-and-a-half times the size of a soccer field. The coast off Giglio falls away steeply, and without this platform the wreck could slip deeper into the water during the attempt to right her.

The construction of the platform was partly to blame for the overall delay. Holes had to be bored nine meters into the seabed to anchor the foundation. But the rugged rock is full of cavities. As a result, many of the attempts to drill the holes had to be abandoned because they offered no firm hold. Nevertheless the platform is now in place.

Another delay was caused by what Porcellacchia calls "by far the most complicated matter." Last December it looked increasingly likely that the bow would rip off unless buoyed up by floatation boxes attached to the side of the ship to support the immense weight of the water-filled front of the Costa Concordia. The engineers therefore had to design another two floatation boxes, known as "blisters," which could be wrapped around the tip of the wreck like a neck brace. These too have since been fitted.

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1. Has anyone learned anything from this accident?
fung.pee 09/15/2013
Massive cruise ships are still permitted to enter Venice where, should one run into trouble, the damage will be inestimable. Additionally, the pollution from these massive floating objects is extreme - engines have to run continuously to power generators. Complicating the control of these ships is language and culture. On the bridge, I understand, the working language is English. Unfortunately, key people on the bridge such as the 'captain' and the helmsman did not share the same mother tongue and therefore the spoken word can be mangled and, through culture, misinterpreted resulting in confusion.
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